Brentano String Quartet reviewed in the Canberra Times

Smooth, warm and balanced
Canberra Times, Monday 6/6/2011
Reviewer: Jennifer Gall

The program for the Brentano String Quartet’s concert was a curious blend of English early music arrangements and quartets by Mozart, Beethoven and Musica Viva’s featured Australian composer, Ian Munro. I felt that the best performances were heard in the second half of the concert, particularly in the energetic and inquisitive approach of the quartet to Munro’s String Quartet No 1, From an Exhibition of Australian Woodcuts (2009).

Since forming in 1992, the Brentano String Quartet has established a world class reputation. In 1999, the Quartet became the first ensemble-inresidence at Princeton University. In a model that would be wonderful in the Canberra School of Music, the Quartet works regularly within the eminent post-graduate composition department at Princeton.

Opening the concert were four short pieces by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. The Brentano sound is smooth, warm and balanced, redolent of long years honing bowing and breathing together to create a united approach to the chosen repertoire. There is less playfulness than the Eggner Trio demonstrated earlier this year – less daring to take the musical parts and stamp them with the musicians’ personalities and more equanimity in the Brentano’s approach to playing.

Mozart’s String Quartet No 15 in D Minor, K421 began with delicacy and lift, but I felt the energy and imagination dissipated in the Andante. The glorious harp-like unison pizzicato passages in the Menuetto: Allegretto revived interest and the opening viola solo in the final movement announced a stately interpretation.

Munro’s Quartet stole the show. The three movements- Sails in the Wind, Corio Magnolias and Tarantella on a Sydney Tram – provided a framework for bold dissonances, satisfying clashes of technical experiments and scope for the musicians to place their signature on their parts. The first movement offered energetic criss-crossing melodies and cutting bowing with underpinning trills creating a picture of flying planes of light and shade, sun and clouds. Corio Magnolias opened with warm broad chords that spun into soundwebs underpinned by the cello’s rocking rhythm, changing to whimsical pizzicato as the violins wove finer melodic threads above. The Tarantella took off in a wild presto frenzy, whipping up the speed to a final climax.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No 16 in F major, Op 135 is a capricious, mostly joyous work. Darker motifs are introduced, to be dispelled with sunnier themes, and there is a sense that the music closely mirrors Beethoven’s emotional state in his 56th year. The Lento was played with tenderness, the bowing creating a throbbing texture and the final Grave ma non troppo tratto opened with a sense of foreboding, dispelled by the sinuous soaring theme of the first violin. A work of contradictory musical ideas, the Beethoven quartet offered the ideal composition in which the Brentano Quartet could demonstrate its particular form of musicianship.

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