July 12, 2017

The Brentano String Quartet Returns to Princeton in Grand Form

Summer is not always for the outdoors, as a full house at Richardson Auditorium proved Sunday at a concert of the Brentano String Quartet. In an unusual Sunday afternoon concert time, the Brentano Quartet showed that good chamber music is welcome at any time of day. As part of Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts’ 50th Season Celebration, the Brentano String Quartet returned to Richardson and presented music ranging from the 16th to the 21st centuries.

The 16th-century Italian composer Carlos Gesualdo was particularly renowned for vocal madrigals stretching the boundaries of musical theory and harmony of the time, creating effects which would give even 21st-century listeners cause to raise an eyebrow. Brentano’s first violinist Mark Steinberg has arranged several madrigals from Gesualdo’s fifth book of madrigals for his fellow players, maintaining the plaintive and joyous nature of the madrigals, as well as the harmonic twists and turns. Mr. Steinberg’s opening madrigal arrangement, based on Gesualdo’s “O voi, troppo felici,” retained shades of 16th-century Renaissance harmony, which the Brentano Quartet conveyed with a well-blended sound, especially in passages for violist Misha Armory and cellist Nina Lee. The second madrigal setting began well in the upper strings, and as with all three arrangements, the four players of the Brentano Quartet cadenced phrases cleanly in a well-unified sound.

American composer Stephen Hartke also composed a version of “fifth book” in a five-movement work capturing the Renaissance madrigal style. Also inspired by the seasons of the year, Dr. Hartke’s The Fifth Book incorporated classical musical forms into a very contemporary instrumental palette. The Brentano Quartet began the first movement of Dr. Hartke’s work with a duet between second violinist Serena Canin and violist Mr. Amory, with Mr. Amory providing the icy raindrops of the “winter” infusing the movement. Throughout the five movements, first violinist Mr. Steinberg played lyrical contrasting melodies, often in duet with Ms. Canin, and the ensemble as a whole moved exactly together.

Like Gesualdo, Ludwig van Beethoven pushed the limits of musical composition for his era, especially in the genre of the string quartet. Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets, composed in 1806 on commission from the Russian ambassador in Vienna at the time, included compositional devices revolutionary for the early 19th century. These quartets are a staple of the Brentano repertory, and the ensemble performed Quartet No. 7, Op. 59, No. 1 as if it were an old friend. The Quartet opened the first movement Allegro in a chipper and bright tempo, playing contemplatively with the musical dialogue very precise among the instruments. The musicians brought out well the drama of the quartet, including Beethoven’s humor in false cadences to the movements. At the close of the first movement, Mr. Steinberg played almost imperceptibly to draw the audience into the intimate performance, as Ms. Lee consistently played an elegant recurring melody,

Ms. Lee successfully moved the second movement forward by gracefully playing a rhythmic motive against a violin melody. The second movement Allegretto was chamber music in its highest form, as the Brentano players brought out well the dynamic builds within the music. A long series of suspensions marked the third movement, as the players demonstrated continuous bowing, and brought phrases down to almost nothing uniformly. A well-executed cadenza-type passage from Mr. Steinberg led to the high-spirited closing movement featuring Beethoven’s melodic Russian tribute to his benefactor.

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and the Brentano String Quartet has been a significant part of the history of the series. The Brentano Quartet also has had a long connection with the Princeton University music department, and each return trip by the Quartet to Richardson is like welcoming back a member of the family.

Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts continue next week with the Lysander Piano Trio on July 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are free, available online one week before the concert, and can be obtained by visiting www.tickets.princeton.edu/online.