Brentano Quartet presents a unique program for Beethoven year at Wolf Trap

Sat Feb 29, 2020 at 2:37 pm
By Alex Baker
The Brentano String Quartet performed music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Palestrina Friday night at Wolf Trap. Photo: Juergen Frank

Wolf Trap presented the Brentano String Quartet Friday night, with a thoughtful take on Beethoven anniversary year. The program was organized around Beethoven’s Op. 132 String Quartet in A minor, particularly its celebrated third movement. 

Subtitled “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode,” and composed in the wake of one of the composer’s life-threatening health scares, the movement served as the fulcrum for the evening, which incorporated related works by Mendelssohn and the 20th-century composer Mario Davidovsky.

To open the program, the quartet offered a brief arrangement of Palestrina’s Gloria Patri hymn, a nod to Beethoven’s interest in older forms of music at the end of his life, echoed in the the “Lydian mode” chorale of the third movement. From there the quartet moved into the tentative half-step figures that open the Beethoven. Giving way to the main body of the Allegro, the quartet made much of the searching, anxious qualities that preoccupy this movement. 

There is an underlying sense of anguish here, but the quartet kept more overt emotions in check, with the plaintive sighing figures traded between violins taking on a hollow, ghostly air. Even in the more sprightly major passages, there was something muted and defeated here, the staccato notes heavy rather than invigorating, adding to a pervasive sense of dread. Ultimately this oppressive atmosphere broke in a blistering finale, with savage attacks in the cello undergirding the agitated final chords of the movement.

The second movement’s halting dialogue is an abrupt change after the more emotional drama of the opening. Less commitment to the seesaw dynamics might have made this a more comfortable listen, but the quartet leaned into the heightened contrasts in the opening minuet. Nor did they shy away from extremes of the movement’s middle section, spotlighting the biting figure in the cellos and violas that derails a cheerful filigree texture in the violins. By the repeat of the first section the effect was a bit exhausting, but left a lasting impression.

The quartet did not disappoint in the pivotal “Heiliger Dankgesang,” each instrument intoning the hushed prelude figures before joining a superbly controlled, seemingly endless spinning texture in the “hymn” section. Slowing the tempo to a glacial pace, the quartet let the through line of the chorale fade away as individual musical events and big-picture dynamics came to the fore—an effect that feels startling modern despite the “ancient” materials. In contrast, the quartet infused the swinging rhythms that characterize the two alternating uptempo sections with a slightly unwieldy sense of abandon, as though the renewed invalid is staggering roughly to his feet. 

The following transitional “Alla Marcia” neatly breaks the spell of the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” but the memory of what came before lingered here, the playful march rhythms weighty and a bit sarcastic. Soon enough the violin declares a return to the searching mood of the opening movement, with first violinist Mark Steinberg offering an intimate, understated solo. The finale eventually disperses in a sort of happy fever that doesn’t quite feel like it resolves what has come before, or at least it didn’t quite do so here, with a final drive that seemed perhaps a bit impatient or careless in its rush to a conclusion.

The second half of the program opened with the late Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky’s String Quartet No. 5 (1998), a deliberate homage to Op. 132. Davidovsky teases apart the “Dankgesang” harmonically and structurally, juxtaposing a reimagined “chorale” material with spiky rhythmic interludes. The quartet made a persuasive case for the work, especially in the exquisite, glassy dissonant chords that break apart and reform to provide moments of stasis in the piece.

The evening closed with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2. Written shortly after Beethoven’s death, the 18-year old Mendelssohn’s affinity with the recently published late string quartets, and particularly Op. 132, is evident throughout. The turbulent, autumnal language Beethoven employed for a work about being old and sick reemerges here in a probing exploration of uncertainty and reassurance in young love, drawing on motifs from Mendelssohn’s song “Frage” (“Question”).

The quartet offered a winning, expansive account of the first movement, grounding the Adagio in a warm, burnished sound before embarking on a propulsive reading of the Allegro vivace. The beginning of the fugue in the second movement was perhaps a bit overtly sentimental, but such quibbles were quickly forgotten as the quartet built the middle section to an emotionally draining climax. The charming Intermezzo, with hints of the composer’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” had the requisite sprightly character.

As in the Beethoven, the finale begins with the searching voice of the first violin. Steinberg offered a poignant but restrained presence here, the disconsolate lover seemingly exhausted with worry, later almost reluctantly rejoining the other instruments, who tore through the Presto with an irresistible momentum. The coda, which sets the comforting final passage “Frage,” provides a respite from the drama that has gone before, played here with disarming sweetness and sense of nostalgia belying the composer’s youthful age.

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