Brentano Quartet, Fiterstein deliver seamless pleasures for Candlelight

Mon Oct 10, 2022 at 11:56 am

The Brentano Quartet and Alexander Fiterstein performed Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet Sunday in Columbia for the Candlelight Concert Society. Photo: Mira Huang/CCS

Candlelight Concert Society continued its exemplary 50th anniversary season Sunday afternoon. The Brentano String Quartet performed two classics of the chamber music repertoire, along with something unexpected, at the Horowitz Center in Columbia. Local connections abounded, from the guest appearance of clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein to a talkback with the Brentano’s former cellist, Michael Kannen, now at the Peabody Institute.

Music history is full of astounding works rarely encountered by string quartets, who tend to focus almost exclusively on music composed after 1750 or so. The Brentano, thanks to arrangements by first violinist Mark Steinberg, regularly programs early music. The tradition continued with the opening work, Steinberg’s string quartet transcriptions of four pieces from Claudio Monteverdi’s sixth book of madrigals.

The four musicians brought their sagely calibrated intonation and exquisite balance to these expressive works, especially the first two madrigals, set in slow tempos. With minimal vibrato, the dissonant clashes of “Lasciatemi Morire” (Let me die), part of the lament of Ariadne from a lost Monteverdi opera, radiated warmth and anguish. Two-note sighs, repeating the first word of “Ohime il bel viso,” punctuated that madrigal’s luscious, love-besotted texture.

The independence of the four voices in these madrigals allowed second violinist Serena Canin and cellist Nina Lee some welcome time in the limelight, in duo and trio combinations. The snappy rhythms of the rather short “Ditelo voi” added pizzicato attacks to the mix. The faster tempo of “Zefiro torna” did not play as well to the expressive capabilities of the string instruments, but the tender middle section proved a highlight, with more salient dissonances.

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, who also teaches at the Peabody Institute, joined the quartet for a stellar rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, a true jewel of the chamber music repertoire. Fiterstein’s restrained sound mixed effortlessly with the quartet’s sense of collegial collaboration, as the first movement crystallized at just the right mellow tempo. The string players, so skilled at accompanying, molded themselves perfectly to every rhythmic liberty.

Fiterstein’s rapid fingerwork dazzled, as did his musicality, giving just the right air of melancholy to the first movement’s shadings toward minor keys. His breath support was astounding, as he elided together long sections, and the quartet responded with fleet movement of their own in the agitated fugal passage of the development.

Evanescent tone from the clarinetist and the muted strings made the slow movement even more crushingly beautiful. Steinberg’s gossamer violin roulades wove through the aching harmonic sequence passages like silken threads. Fiterstein took time at the returns of the main theme, spinning out little cadenzas.

A long spell of silence allowed the ears to make the shift to Mozart’s earthy Menuetto. Violist Misha Amory came forward on a jaunty counter-melody in the strings-only first trio, and Fiterstein added a bumptious joy to the second trio. The Finale, a wide-ranging theme and variations, featured Fiterstein in elegant leaps of register and more pleading viola playing from Amory in the third variation. After a sentimental slow variation, the final race to the finish was exhilarating.

The final component of the Brentano’s appeal came in Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14, with an emphasis on gritty sound and risk-taking after a first half of reserve and polish. Fast sections of the first movement exploded with activity, eliciting fine solo work from cello and viola at various points. The second movement, a devilish Scherzo, rocketed at full speed but still cohered as an ensemble statement, never tipping into frenzy.

In the slow movement, set in a lush major key, the quartet created a quiet intensity of sound, with mournful forays into minor. When the two violinists engaged in a carefree serenade, pizzicato viola and cello accompanied gracefully. Impeccable ensemble precision governed the dramatic Finale, with broadness of tone. A virtuosic dash to the thrilling conclusion provided a rousing end to an excellent concert.

Marc-André Hamelin plays Beethoven’s  “Hammerklavier” sonata, plus music by Fauré and Hamelin, 7:30 p.m. October 29 at Linehan Concert Hall.

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