Fort Worth — The second half of this week’s Cliburn at the Kimbell performance served as an appetizer for the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. After all, Haochen Zhang was co-gold medalist of the 2009 Cliburn Competition. The Brentano String Quartet, which includes violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Maria Lee, is the featured quartet for the 2017 competition; they will perform a piano quintet with each of the six finalists.
One of the four quintets from which the finalists may choose is the Franck Piano Quintet in F minor, which the Brentano and Zhang played with drama and commitment Thursday evening. This is at least the second time this season that the Franck has appeared on a local stage; Chamber Music International featured it on a program just last month. But it is always worth another listen: fierce and engaging, it is chamber music with the intensity level, and often the volume, turned up to eleven. The temptation with this piece is to push it too hard; if that happens, intensity becomes force and pressure, and the desired effect is lost. The Brentano Quartet and Zhang never succumbed to that lure. The result was electric: lyric passages were lovely, while the final movement was truly ominous. If any of the finalists in the 2017 Cliburn Competition creates this kind of magic with the Brentano Quartet, that finalist will be nearly sure to medal.
In the first half of the program, Zhang and the quartet performed separately. Zhang’s solo turn was Chopin’s iconic Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35. This is the moodiest of sonatas, with its famous Marcia funèbre third movement bookended by a scherzo second movement and a presto fourth movement. Zhang handled the abrupt changes of character with style, pausing a few extra beats after the third movement to let its beauty and pathos, and the sustain pedal, reverberate before moving into the onrushing waterfall of notes that is the fourth movement. Zhang was exemplary here; the biggest issue came not from his playing but from the piano; the Steinway seemed to have a mis-adjusted hammer on one of the strings, creating superfluous noise.
The Brentano Quartet’s piano-less offering was Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 135. This was very nearly the last composition Beethoven wrote, but it is fundamentally different from the other “Late Quartets,” opuses 127, 130, 131, 132, and 133 (the Grosse Fuge). All the others are massive. Opus 135, in the right hands, is a sort of eulogy, spoken by Beethoven himself, with an audience of the world. The Brentano Quartet’s hands are the right ones indeed, producing music alternatingly buoyant and profound, joyous and frightening. The third movement, marked Assai lento, cantante e tranquillo became on this evening a meditation on life—Beethoven’s, our own.
The spaces between notes were almost as powerful as the notes themselves, as if the musicians were holding their breath. But the more playful first movement shows us that Beethoven, sick, deaf, and nearing the end of his life, could still summon joy, at least in his compositions. The last movement, with its daunting question “Muss es sein?” (“Must it be?”) and the affirming answer “Es muss sein!” (“It must be!”) alternates between the grief of the question and the exuberance of the answer. The Brentano’s polish, their unity, and their precision allowed listeners nearly to forget that there were four musicians serving as a conduit between the 200-years-dead German and ourselves. Instead, there was only Beethoven, with his exaltations and sorrows. There can be no higher compliment.