For the past 15 years, the Brentano String Quartet, comprised of violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee, has been Ensemble-in-Residence at Princeton University. As part of this residency, the Brentano has assisted with classes and workshops, and has presented concerts to the public each year, many of them free. The last of these public performances took place last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium, as the quartet played a fond musical farewell to an extremely fruitful relationship with the Princeton University department of music.
For this performance, the Brentano selected music of two composers who would at first seem unrelated. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the founders of the string quartet genre, certainly taking the form to new heights with elegant melodies and courtly dance styles. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich may have had access to the traditional classical music forms, but under the repression and censorship of early 20th-century Russia. The two Mozart chamber works presented by the Brentano Friday night to the full house at Richardson were replete with grace and late 18th-century sophistication, while the Shostakovich quartet was based on the same form, but infused with melancholy and idioms rooted in the Russian church tradition.
Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 came relatively late in his career (although “late” is relative for a person who only lived to be 35) and showed the composer’s full command of melodies which could pull at the heartstrings of any generation. Mozart composed this quartet (intended as part of a set of six) for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, and one could easily hear elements of the 18th-century court in the piece’s delicate figures and tapered ends of phrases. Friedrich Wilhelm was an amateur cellist, and Brentano cellist Nina Lee was featured extensively in the four movements.
The Brentano Quartet played from the outset with style and precise conversation among the instruments. Trills were well-heard in the hall, and the sound often collectively dissipated away, such as in the return to the exposition in the first movement. This movement in particular was conversational, with Ms. Lee leading the four-way chat.
Ms. Lee also showed elegance of phrase in the more lyrical sections of the work.
For the other Mozart piece on the program, the Brentano String Quartet added a fifth instrumentalist. Violist Hsin-Yun Huang, a soloist with numerous credits and awards of her own, added a light touch and crisp playing to Mozart’s String Quintet No. 4 in G Minor. A product of one of Mozart’s more trying years, this four-movement work showed the dark color of the composer’s other works in the same key, enhanced by rich viola lines and interplay between the two violins. This quintet reflected the frustration of Mozart’s year in a relentless ostinato in the opening movement, but occasionally moments of joy came through. The five players brought out well the drama in the music, and in the third movement Adagio, one could easily hear the tenderness of Mozart’s operas. In the closing movement, Mr. Steinberg played a graceful and aria-like violin line, and all five players brought the work to a close with finesse.
The chamber work which contrasted with the elegance of Mozart’s style was Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, composed in 1965, 200 years after Mozart. Shostakovich dedicated this quartet to a member of the Moscow Conservatory Quartet which had premiered most of his string quartets and who had recently died, and the structure of the work showed how far the form had come in 200 years. Shostakovich incorporated into the piece musical forms popular throughout the 19th century, tying them together to both pay homage to a colleague and create an eloquent musical palette.
The seven movements flowed seamlessly as the players of the Brentano found both the plaintive melodies of the work and its occasional sense of peace and calm. Mr. Steinberg in particular exhibited a persistent musical figure in the second movement, both on single string and in double stops. Ms. Canin drew an especially rich tone from the second violin in the closing movement, sounding almost like a wind instrument at times.
The Brentano String Quartet may be ending their formal residency relationship with Princeton University, but the players are certainly not going far; they are scheduled to return in recital next February with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. As the Brentano takes up its new residence at Yale, Princeton will welcome the innovative So Percussion Quartet as the Edward T. Cone Ensemble-in-Residence. This group of young musicians will no doubt bring a new style of music to the University as music at Princeton moves further into the 21st century.