Brentano Quartet @ Libby Gardner Hall 12.04

Posted December 10, 2012 in
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Photo: Christian Steiner

The Brentano Quartet, holding many awards and performing at countless prestigious venues and festivals, are currently the Resident String Quartet at Princeton University, and balance that responsibility with tours that take them throughout the world. The evening turned out to be one of my favorite so far of the season, performing selections from Purcell's Fantasia, and two-string quartet works by Beethoven. The performers took me on a whirlwind of an adventure that brought to mind imagery of exploring forests and climbing mountains, with a full range of emotions visited throughout, dancing between the depths of Hell and the Pearly Gates of Heaven.

Beginning the night with the selections from Purcell, Brentano Quartet started with the "No. 8 in d minor," which seemed odd to me, as it transitioned from that to "No. 5 in B-Flat Major." While going through loops that sounded as if the quartet were tuning together during a sound check, “No. 8” turned to a melody that was pleasant and filled with spirit. The ending of “No. 8” ended on a high, unresolved note, as if being caught running and frozen midair, with the beginning of “No. 5” failing to complete that frozen jump, starting the movement in a completely different disposition. It seemed interesting to me that the order of the selections went from “No. 8” to “No. 5,” proceeding with “No. 7” and finally “No. 9,” but I'm going to assume that there are probably some sort of hidden mathematical elements that I'm missing out on due to lack of technical expertise on the matter. Although unrelated to the popular Disney film of the same title, it was hard for me (as someone who grew up with Disney heavily ingrained into my childhood brain) not to make comparisons of these pieces to the animation. During "No. 7 in c minor," my mind was filled with images from the scene "Night on Bald Mountain," where the demons gather around this mountain to worship Satan until the dawn breaks and beauty reigns over all. This movement felt like a struggle to climb to the top of the mountain, where "No. 9 in a minor" felt like the final reach to the summit. While the final piece ended conclusively, it still seemed cut off, as if that whole struggle to the top was never really resolved, only approached. There are 13 movements all in all, though, so I'm assuming that Purcell didn't bring down the curtain in quite the same way.
Next was Beethoven's "String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2." My favorite moment happened during the "Allegro con brio," when Nina Lee on cello played an almost-solo, dominating the other three players, as if the cello were leading them on an adventure through the wilderness. The viola and violins seemed timidly following behind, when the cello owned authority and got all assertive on their bashful asses, after which they ceased any questions or doubts, and gloriously continued their adventure. This piece is said to be subtitled the "Komplimentier Quartett" (meaning compliments), suggesting the courtesy and manners of the period, with cordial bows and appropriate gestures. The next movement, "Adagio cantabile," had me feeling as though I was listening to the finale of a funeral tune, like you know it doesn't end anymore than that kind of end, the ultimate end of the end, when all of a sudden, the mood quickly changed and suddenly became light and fluffy with a cheerful nature. Indeed, Beethoven was also known to write this with elements of a joke, so it makes sense that the different movements would toy with my feeble emotions. The final movement, "Allegro molto quasi Presto", concluded the piece triumphantly with a majesty that few other than Beethoven can write. 
Ending the night with Beethoven's "String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130, with Grosse Fugue, Op. 133" felt like a continuation of the jokester elements that sly Beethoven used in his string quartets, albeit to a lesser degree. Unlike most quartets, there were six movements during this opus, leading me through more mood swings than I go through while I'm pre-menstruating. So often these pieces would build up to something sounding so gloriously majestic, only to later fall into soft, quiet fits of melancholia. "Adagio ma non troppo" did just this, as the violins almost took a brass-sounding quality to them with a slow-sounding trumpet call in the forest varying with swift sounds, as if rolling through level-six rapids. During "Presto," it seemed that the players were all huddling together, making plans, perhaps arguing over minor disagreements, but ultimately coming up with something that they all got pumped on. The transition to "Andante con moto" seemed to repeat the melodies and themes that were established in the first movement, following smoothly into "Alla danza tedesca," which translates as a fast German dance. 
The next movement, "Cavatina," is quite the special movement for all of you Sagan fans. Those familiar with "The Golden Record" (a record on board with the Voyager spacecraft to showcase the variety of sounds, images and languages on Planet Earth) should know that this is the final track on that album. Picturing this as a sound that plummets through space, beyond our solar system, is the symbolic attempt of the human desire to connect to extraterrestrial life, which gives a different kind of listening to the movement than that which Beethoven probably intended. (I don't think he was thinking much about interstellar travel, but I could be wrong.) Although gloomy, the doom one may feel during this listening translates as peaceful tranquility, which goes along well with the idea of us existing on a pale, blue dot. One of the more tender moments was when Misha Amory on viola played a type of slow, soft solo, as if holding on by a thread yet still able to weave the sounds of the other players together magically. Although the piece could have ended here, there was still the "Finale: Grosse Fuge," which sometimes is and sometimes is not included in the performances, as most critics found it to not quite fit. This finale started out as the name suggested, with a grand bang, super loud and very aggressive-sounding, so very unlike the previous movement, so I can see why this is sometimes not performed. 
There's still more to check out from the season! Next up is a Trio Solisti with Amy Burton as soprano, which I'm sure will be another night of delightful listening. The schedule is online at
Photo: Christian Steiner Photo: Christian Steiner