Carl Vine on the Brentano String Quartet
More than any other composer, Beethoven has attracted the eternal love of countless musicians and music lovers. But few have shown greater dedication to the glorious Ludwig Van than members of the Brentano String Quartet.
Antonie Brentano and her husband were Beethoven’s friends and his patrons. Biographer Maynard Solomon proposed that she is the mysterious, unidentified ‘Immortal Beloved’ to whom Beethoven wrote a love confession in 1803. While different theories abound about the rightful owner of the epithet, Mrs Brentano remains a plausible candidate. Mark Steinberg, first violin in the group explains that ‘we always thought that if he loved her, and we named ourselves after her, he might love us too’. The prognosis is good.
A new film called The Last Quartet is due for release later this year. The Beethoven-laden soundtrack has been provided by the Brentanos. Its website description promises a riveting story about ‘four members of a world-renowned string quartet who struggle to stay together in the face of death, competing egos and insuppressible lust’. (With any luck the production is more real-life documentary than fanciful invention!)
In their forthcoming tour they will also play two of Beethoven’s late quartets. The group is devoting the next three years to recording all of these astonishing works. They approach the task with a unique combination of academic rigour, visceral engagement and unbridled love for the music. As Steinberg says of the works, ‘they refer to each other quite a bit, and as you get steeped in the lot of them, it changes your relationship to each individual work.’ One should probably expect such a thorough, all-encompassing approach from such a pure, ‘Ivy League’ ensemble – since 1999 the Brentano String Quartet has been the first-ever resident ensemble at New Jersey’s Princeton University.
Although the group radiates a strong impression of youth and energy, it is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. And although it is driven by love of the great classics, it has maintained a solid connection with new and unusual repertoire. This tour is a glittering contrast of old and new, late and early. Alongside Beethoven’s immensely rich late quartets are some remarkable transcriptions of Renaissance music and a last quartet by Haydn, with the touching addition of a chorale about an old musician facing death.
The very first quartet by our Featured Composer, Ian Munro, adds a more modern note. But it is also tinged with nostalgia, inspired by vintage images of Australia’s past from the book Melbourne Woodcuts and Linocuts of the 1920s and 1930s. This is a fascinating collection of work in two media that are not in vogue today, but which evoke a powerful impression of Australian urban sensibility between the two wars.
The Brentano is an extraordinary quartet. I always find their Haydn interpretations peerless, their Beethoven revelatory, and Steinberg’s Renaissance arrangements always illuminating. Mix in some Munro for a concert experience without parallel.