In a recent interview, Mark Steinberg, first violinist of the Brentano String Quartet, said that the two Stradivarius violins that he and second violinist Serena Canin play have a more mellow sound that the earlier violins by the master. This fact, which didn't seem like much at the time of the interview, came sharply into focus on Tuesday evening at Bass Hall in Fort Worth when the Brentano Quartet played a widely varied program as part of the Cliburn Concerts' Cliburn at the Bass Concert Series.
Indeed, the quartet produces a noticeably more mellow tone than other quartets. This is not to say that they completely lack brilliance, but it is a burnished brilliance. This is especially noticeable when Steinberg is on the steel E string, the highest on the instrument. The sound he produces on this string is hard to describe; words like "creamy" come to mind. This is also the case with Canin, but she doesn't spend as much time in the upper registers.
Violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee have instruments that are larger, so they are always more mellow than the violins. The overall effect is a darker sound, but not heavy or dampened. The sound is flexible and can be easily adapt to the music being played. For example, in the Four Fantasias by the British Baroque composer, Henry Purcell, they morphed into a very good imitation of a chest of viols.
Bartók's prickly String Quartet No. 4 sounded the most different in that its incessant and dissonant buzzing condensed into an almost physical thing that was on a sub visual level – like a bee swarm that is so thick it looks like a single entity, large and undulating, and you lose the understanding that it is made up of many separate beings. Words fail here and similes are clumsy at best. However, once you hear the Brentano play this quartet it is forever changed in your memory and future performances will surely disappoint.
This is not to say that this Bartók performance overcame all of the formidable obstacles that it presents to the listener. It is still one of the most unrelenting, in-you-face and completely dissonant-from-start-to-finish works in the repertoire. However, in the hands of the Brentano, the work ceased to be four closely voiced battling lines of music. It coalesced before our eyes and became something solid and whole. It snapped, distorted and buzzed. The sound crackled as the players used the wood of the bow. Crazed melodic lines rose up out of the plasma like flares and then descended back into haze. But all this action and energy took place inside of something indescribable. Think of all the sub-atomic particles whizzing around on the inside of an atom.
Much more straight forward, the Brentano gave superlative readings of Haydn's D minor String Quartet (Hob. III:43) and Brahms' A minor String Quartet (Op. 51, No. 2). The Haydn was a jewel of Classicism. Vibrato was held to a subtle minimum and all of Haydn's charm came through. The piece felt short but maybe that is because no one wanted it to end.
Brahms waited until he was almost 40 years old before he allowed a string quartet of his to be published. Reportedly, he destroyed dozens of previous efforts. The A minor quartet is a lyrical work but it ends with a Csárdás folk dance that needs to enjoy itself. The Brentano erred on the conservative side on this work, even though it is earlier Brahms. Vibrato was somewhat more that evidenced in the Haydn but still not enough for a romantic piece like the Brahms at any age. The final movement, while impeccably played, remained earth bound. While the offbeat rhythm of the Hungarian Csárdás was there, the gypsy passion needed to pull this dance off was uncharacteristically tame.
It has been announced that the Brentano Quartet will be the chamber music group for the upcoming Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which runs from mid- May to mid-June, 2013. Their impeccable musicianship and almost ESP-worthy ensemble bodes really well for the competition.