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Review: Brilliant Programming Leads the Way With The Brentano String Quartet At 92nd Street Y

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, December 5, 2017

In the wonderfully warm acoustics of the 92nd Street Y, the exceptional Brentano String Quartet and beloved soprano Dawn Upshaw presented a satisfying Sunday feast that probed the depths of human expression with a few helpings of the First Viennese School (here represented by Mozart and Schubert), a few helpings of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg and Webern), and a complementary Italian palette cleanser along the way (Respighi).

Mozart composed his String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465, the last of his set of string quartets dedicated to Haydn, the so-called “Dissonance,” in 1785. It’s a next-level work in which Mozart found possibilities that pushed the boundaries of his time. While an early critic described it as “execrable,” the mysterious, slow introduction to the first movement is rather a passage of inexplicable ambiguity, almost primordial.

Throughout the piece, the quartet’s musicians played as one organism, but each individual personality also shone through. They found in Mozart’s sparing dynamics indications inspiration for a carefully choreographed interplay wherein each of the players alternated moments of emotional accent. The group found intense intimacy in the sublime Andante cantabile, and rugged earthiness in the Menuetto. Throughout, they played with powerful glide and sweep, and with a wide range of tonal attack.

Dawn Upshaw with the Brentano String Quartet in concert in Kaufman Hall at the 92nd Street Y; photo: Michael Priest.

Dawn Upshaw then joined for an exquisite reading of Ottorino Respighi’s chamber cantata Il Tramonto, a setting of a poem by Shelley, the great Romantic English poet who was married to Mary Shelley, of Frankenstein fame. Composed in 1914, making it the latest piece on the program, this Italian translation of Shelley’s Gothic love poem The Sunset was an inspired choice, providing the perfect bridge between Mozart’s ornate world, and the more abstract approach of his successors in early twentieth century Vienna.

While the harmonic language in Respighi’s score has a purple hue, some gripping moments in the narrative are highly effective in this melodramatic, long phrased, one woman opera. Upshaw’s buttery lyricism belies a crisp rhythmic discipline and attention to dynamics. She is a consummate musician, and uniquely successful in material such as this. She phrased with the quartet in a well-considered, natural way, and together, they employed a wide dynamic range, and an architectural, long lined interpretation.

Following intermission, in a bit of brilliant programming, Five Minuets from 1813 by Schubert (of the First Viennese School) were performed interspersed with Six Bagatelles, Op. 9 by Anton Webern from a century later. The juxtaposition was wonderful and provided levity and variety. Webern’s brief movements, purely atonal and made up of wisps and fleeting gestures, are like a miniature worlds the size of a grain of sand. Against the long-melodied folksy dances of Schubert, Webern’s dances were intriguing flashes of reflection — mere moments. They are also adventurous in their coloristic orchestration effects, and the quartet assailed the complex rhythms and shimmering special effects with aplomb, and played with a great sense of rhythmic sweep, notably attuned to the spirit of dance present in these pieces.

The afternoon culminated in a rare performance of Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 10, a chamber piece with the emotional weight of a condensed Mahler symphony, featuring a soprano in the third and fourth movements. This piece represents Schoenberg’s bristling at the frontiers of late Romanticism. The text consists of two poems by Stefan George, “Litany” and “Transport,” and in it, Schoenberg found inspiration for music that transports.

Extending his tendrils into post-tonality, but occasionally remembering the magnetic pull of traditional major and minor chords, this work is a clear early example of Expressionism: individual, subjective, conflicted. The implications of what Schoenberg discovered in this score are as if he climbed a mountain on the other side of which was the 20th Century, and he peered into the other side, with moments of mystical vision that foresee an entirely new aesthetic. Upshaw soared in the last movement’s crowning fortissimos, and the quartet shaped the piece with a keen ear for texture and color.

This was a superb afternoon of exploring the rich artistic reaches of musical expression within traditional forms stretched to their apotheosis, and exploring the phenomenon of Romanticism and its consequences.

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Brentano String Quartet in concert at the 92nd Street Y / Kaufman Hall, on December 3, 2017 at 3:00pm. Misha Amory (viola), Serena Canin (violin), Nina Lee (cello), Mark Steinberg (violin); guest soloist Dawn Upshaw, soprano.

MOZART  Quartet in C major, K.465, “Dissonance”
RESPIGHI  Il tramonto, for string quartet and soprano
SCHUBERT  Five Minuets, D. 89
WEBERN  Six Bagatelles, Op. 9
SCHOENBERG  Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor, for string quartet and soprano, Op. 10

 

Cover: Brentano String Quartet in concert at Kaufman Hall, 92nd Street Y; photo: Michael Priest.


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