Brentano String Quartet
Ensemble Music Society
Indiana History Center
The 13-year-old Brentano String Quartet was named for Antonie Brentano, Beethoven's mysterious "immortal beloved" - now positively identified by music historians as the lady he most worshipped (from afar). Their appearance here last Wednesday appropriately ended with one of the Bonn master's exalted "late" quartets in a stirring climax to a great season of chamber-music engagements by Pamela Steele's Ensemble Music Society. Having been in residence at Princeton and New York universities, violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Avery and cellist Nina Lee proved here that the mark they've made elsewhere is a bona fide one. Interestingly, their program completely avoided music's Romantic period. The Brentanos String Quartet performed at the IHC on April 20.
The Brentanos began their evening with perhaps the most novel offering of any series this season: Oh Gesualdo, Divine Tormentor! Written just last year by Bruce Adolphe for the Brentano group, the seven-section work recasts 16th century madrigals by that most maverick of Renaissance composers, Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), into vehicles for string quartet. The only significant composer in history to be a self-confessed murderer (of his wife and her lover - who else?), Gesualdo also bent the then-current "rules" of composition to the extreme, winning the admiration of 20th century modernists, getting ridiculed by his contemporaries and being mostly ignored by present-day performers and audiences.
It seemed to me that the five madrigals that Adolphe directly transcribed - concluding with "Moro lasso" - consist mostly of a succession of chords, beautiful in themselves but having little or no obvious continuity or relationship in their progression. In his sixth piece, Adolphe freely interprets "Moro lasso," entitling it "More or less" while adding linking turns and other connective tissue to form a whole piece, the best of the set. In the brief seventh piece, which Adolphe calls "Momenti," he concatenates "great moments" from additional Gesualdo madrigals. Though very well-played, this material needs voices to really work.
We then jump to a conventional repertoire mainstay from the "father" of the string quartet: Josef Haydn's Quartet in B-flat, Op. 64 No. 3. For once, a Haydn quartet didn't serve as a concert opener, allowing the fully warmed-up Brentanos to fully share all the elements of this well-wrought piece. Its Finale proved its most interesting movement, a sprightly one containing a series of unexpected, slow transitions.
Beethoven in his final four years, totally deaf, wracked with health problems and appearing demented to the many who stuck with him, produced his five late quartets: miracles of beauty, complexity, organization and whimsy which defy all attempts at rationalizing their creation - the summit of his (or anyone's) art. His Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132 is unique - as are all five in their own way - in containing a hymn cast in the Lydian mode (realized by playing the F major scale on only the white keys) that opens the third movement. The Brentanos built it to a searing, palpable intensity by the movement's end, while revealing its other four movements' richness-beyond-belief. This was one of the few five-star performances I've witnessed all season.