Brentano String Quartet reviewed in The Australian

Back to a time before string quartets
Murray Black, The Australian
May 25, 2011

GREAT artists often seek a point of difference, something that makes them stand out from their peers. String quartets are no exception. Some focus on contemporary, genre-bending works. Others aim to create distinctive interpretations of the great masters.

Although the Brentano Quartet largely fits in the latter category, what sets it apart is its arrangements of music pre-dating the string quartet. On its last tour in 2007, we heard Monteverdi madrigals. This time, it was four viol consort works by English composers William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. Their arrangements worked wonderfully well, mainly because of the Brentano’s respectful approach. The group’s textural clarity illuminated the elaborate contrapuntal lines, its rich, deep-toned sonorities evoked the spirit of the viol consort and its rhythmic vitality brought to life the dance-like character of the two Gibbons fantasias.

The rest of the Brentano’s concert featured more traditional programming choices: two repertoire classics (Mozart’s string quartet, K421 and Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet) and a contemporary work in the first string quartet (2009) by Musica Viva’s 2011 featured composer Ian Munro.

Extra-musical stimuli clearly ignite Munro’s composing process and the work’s subtitle – From an Exhibition of Australian Woodcuts – reveals its origins. The frenetic energy and rhythmic drive of the outer movements portrayed images of cheerful activity while the reflective Corio Magnolias was a touching depiction of an imagined suburbia.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Munro’s quartet was his penchant for splitting the quartet into two voices, sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementing. Usually setting the two violins against the lower instruments, he created an inventive array of colours and textures as appealing melodic phrases were intertwined with extended trills, tremolos, harmonics and pizzicato accompaniments. Of the repertoire staples, Beethoven Op. 135 came off best. The virtue of the Brentano’s account was to remind us how Beethoven’s final quartet simultaneously looks forward and back.

There are moments in all the late Beethoven quartets that still sound strange to modern ears. The group’s scrupulous dynamic control and excellent balance highlighted the mysterious murmurings and hushed dissonances threaded through Op. 135. By contrast, the periodic nods to Haydn were gracefully noted.

The Mozart quartet opened the concert. Initially, the ensemble’s timbral blend was slightly ill-matched. But once its playing found clarity and focus, the Brentano Quartet delivered a reading that balanced athleticism and refined elegance.

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