in: Reviews

October 18, 2011

Brentano String Quartet Connecting

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The enterprising Brentano String Quartet celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. Rather than taking to the road with a conventional celebratory program, such as a cycle of the string quartets of, say, Beethoven, Bartok, Schoenberg, or Shostakovich, they planned something entirely original—a unique program entitled “Fragments: Connecting Past and Present”—performed on Sunday afternoon in Rockport’s stunning Shalin Liu Performance Center. The performance offered two hours of stimulation and delight.

Every composer has, at some times, and for many different reasons, left uncompleted works. Some of these are entire finished movements of larger works normally in several movements that the composer chose not to complete. Schubert’s c minor Quartet movement, D.703, is one of the best known of these, a stunning first movement that would surely have become one of his greatest string quartets if he had completed it in a manner as successful as that in which he began it. Haydn’s very last string quartet work, published as Op. 103, consists of just two movements, not the expected four. Dmitri Shostakovich composed a complete quartet movement, Allegretto, for a quartet that otherwise remained unfinished.

But there are also works, or rather, extensive drafts, that a composer begins and somehow gives up in the middle, whether from losing interest in the piece or from doubt as to how it might go on. These are more accurately called “fragments”: the final fugue in Bach’s Art of Fugue, and a fragmentary string quartet movement in e minor by Mozart, K.417d. Such pieces are frequently well-studied by scholars, but they are almost never performed for audiences, in spite of their inevitable ability to show unexplored aspects of the composer’s thought — apparent dead ends, and artistic problems for which the creator found no evident solution.

For its twentieth anniversary season, the Brentano Quartet commissioned (with assistance from fourteen concert presenters as co-commissioners) six composers to choose an earlier fragment and create a response to it—either a completion for a truly fragmentary work, or another movement as a kind of context into which the incomplete piece might fit in the twenty-first century. The composers selected were diverse in their musical approaches and interests, and the resulting program—consisting of the original pieces plus the modern composers’ responses—was an utterly fascinating series of artistic handshakes across the centuries.

Before discussing the six works (or pairs of works) heard on Sunday, I must express my admiration for the extraordinarily expressive playing, combined with superb technical control, of the Brentano Quartet (Mark Steinberg, violin, Serena Canin, violin, Misha Amory, viola, and Nina Lee, cello). Of course, after twenty years of hearing this ensemble, these are not unfamiliar characteristics of their playing, but on this occasion they were called upon to play in a wider range of styles than probably ever before, from passages derived from the fifteenth-century composer Guillaume Dufay to the ultra-modern Sofia Gubaidulina, with visits to the workshops of four of the most essential composers of our western musical tradition: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. In particular I was entranced by the flexibility and the range of color that they employed in Schubert’s extraordinary quartet movement, the one “fragment” that is a standard repertory item in performance.

The first and last items on the program were single movements in which the modern composer either reworked the original directly or linked his completion to it without a pause. In all the other cases, the new addition was a separate conception, though intimately linked to the older work and surely requiring the original fragment to provide it with a context.

The outlier, in terms of approach, was Charles Wuorinen’s Marian Tropes, which drew from music of the mid- to late fifteenth century by Dufay and Josquin. For all his reputation as a committed serialist in his own music, Wuorinen has often chosen to visit earlier periods in making arrangements from John Bull and Cabezón (both from the sixteenth century), and from the Glogauer Liederbuch (anonymous fifteenth-century partbooks). For this commission, he explained in his program note that, strictly speaking, no fragments (in the sense of incomplete movements) survive from the fifteenth century, because everything we have was copied into partbooks or in choirbook format for performance — and, of course, no one would copy a piece that was not ready to be performed. But he chose two orphan movements from Mass compositions, a Kyrie by Josquin and a Gloria by Dufay. During some stretches of his work, it was easy to hear the original, often with just two lines unfolding in the flexible counterpoint of the time. But at the points where interpolated texts (not normally part of these Mass movements) dedicated to the Virgin Mary appear, Wuorinen decorated them with glissandi, a striking entry of modern sonority into the original; this idea was then elaborately extended. The textural clarity of the original nonetheless reappears often as it unfolds, with the effect of a kind of sonorous time travel across more than five centuries.

As I mentioned earlier, Schubert’s Quartettsatz (a silly thing to call it in the United States, when it is simply an editorial title meaning “quartet movement”) in c minor is very well known. But few people—and I had not been not among them—have been lucky enough to hear the fragmentary slow movement that Schubert started but unaccountably never finished. (Martin Chusid once pointed out that Schubert left a rather large number of incomplete pieces at about this time, the great majority of which are in minor keys. He proposed an explanation that has always struck me as sensible: Schubert was struggling with the problem of how to end a minor key work convincingly in the major. In earlier generations, one could simply go to the major mode at the end, and all was well. But Beethoven had recently raised the stakes with the Fifth Symphony and other works.)

In any case, the Brentanos gave a brilliant performance of Schubert’s first movement, then played the gorgeously, serenely expressive second movement fragment until it gave out. At this point Bruce Adolphe began his response, Fra(nz)g-Mentation, with material from the unfinished slow movement, broken into a pattern of eleven notes (4+3+2+2), creating a kind of cosmic dance. At the same time, as the piece unfolded, he suggested a progression through two centuries, as if Schubert had lived to our time and continued working on the piece until now.

The first half of the program ended with a response to what is probably the most famous of all incomplete works, the final fugue of Bach’s Art of Fugue; one of the last compositions of the composer who always seemed to understand all the possibilities of music better than any other. The fragment consists of three separate fugal expositions, each based on a different theme, the last of which spells out Bach’s name (in the German notation, where B = B flat and H = B natural).  The original fugue theme of the entire Art of Fugue appears nowhere in this final work, and it has always been assumed that Bach intended to finish it off with a combination of all three fugue subjects already heard capped off by the addition of the original theme. Over the years various “completions” have been proposed, but when the Art of Fugue was originally published by C.P.E. Bach, after his father’s death, the final fugue simply ended after the exposition of the B-A-C-H theme. The assumption has often been made over the centuries that Bach died before he could finish the work, but Christoph Wolff pointed out that he would hardly have begun such a complex piece of counterpoint without working out its climactic ending first. So it is more likely that there was at some point a final page or so that contained the ending and that it simply got disconnected from the rest. (What a rediscovery that would be if it turned up somewhere!)

In any case, the Brentanos played just what was left in the first published edition of Art of Fugue, with a clear balancing of the four parts to bring out the thematic lines very effectively. At the point where this breaks off, the remarkable Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who has always remarked that Bach was one of the two composers who most influenced her (the other was Webern), takes up her challenging, dramatic response to the fugue. Though much of the music was very dense and hard to parse on a first hearing, the features that most struck me were frequent upward glissandos passed among the four instruments. I heard them as the atomizing of the B-A-C-H theme into two descending semitones inverted into major sevenths. (The descending semitones also seemed to fill the thick sonority in their original form.)  The mood throughout was intensely dramatic until a final decrescendo to a gentle, and very simple close, in which the three upper parts played four triads that harmonized the unadorned B-A-C-H melody, against which the cello offered a quietly grudging but dissonant one-note comment.

The second half of the program consisted of responses to fragmentary works by Haydn, Mozart, and Shostakovich. The Allegretto for string quartet that Shostakovich wrote between his Eighth and Ninth Quartets is largely unknown; indeed, I have been unable to locate any mention of it in the work-list of the New Grove or in Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich, the standard biography.

Stephen Hartke’s response to the Shostakovich Allegretto bears the initially surprising title of From the Fifth Book; he explains in his note that “this piece may, at some point, become the first movement of a complete string quartet entitled The Fifth Book (by which I mean my fifth book of madrigals).”  His composition seems inherently closer in style and conception to the original work than the other pieces on the program, possibly because the Shostakovich quartet movement is only about fifty years old and not two or three centuries in the past.

John Harbison’s response to Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 103 (two movements that Haydn presumably planned as the central elements of a four-movement work), is not only a musical composition, but also a music-historical hypothesis. Haydn had completed two quartets that were eventually published as Op. 77. But at that time it was customary to publish music in sets of three or multiples of three (most of his earlier quartet publications were grouped by six, though he also published some in groups of three). Why did Haydn not complete the Quartet in d minor and include it in Op. 77?  Harbison believes that the answer lies in the fateful premieres at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz of the two completed quartets of Haydn’s Op. 77 and the first set of quartets of the young Turk, Beethoven, who never admitted how much he had truly learned from Haydn (not so much from direct teaching as from the example of his works) until well after the older composer’s death. In any event, when Haydn finally acceded to the publication of these two movements of the uncompleted quartet, he quoted a text of his song, Der Greis (“The Old Man”): “Gone is all my strength. Old and weak am I.”

Harbison’s response to this statement is “Nonsense.” He has decided that Haydn was “covering up” — modestly withdrawing from a field in which another younger composer showed great brilliance, though he himself was still in full control of his musical imagination, and in this particular piece he found “windows wide open to the future.” So Harbison composed a Presto movement as a Finale, using contemporary terms to “re-create…Haydn’s constant dialogue between symmetry and asymmetry.”  The result is a whirlwind of energy that suggests not only Haydn’s lickety-split finales, but also, perhaps, an inkling of Beethoven as well. Harbison’s movement is filled with the wit that is so fundamental in Haydn: expectations are set up, foiled, and eventually confirmed.

The closing item on the program was a true Mozart fragment, an Allegro in e minor that runs for 54 measures before petering out completely; even in the part that Mozart completed, there are extensive stretches in which just one instrument is playing, and the other three parts remain empty. The opening statement modulates from e minor to G and then suddenly the violin plays triplet scales and arpeggios all by itself for a dozen bars before the others come back to suggest chromatic expressiveness in g minor for a phrase or two. Then the cello takes off (mostly by itself) back in G major and the violin follows to mystify with some chromatic adjustments. One more cadential figure is set to confirm G major when the music breaks off.

Vijay Iyer found a wonderful way to pick up at this point. Rather than writing a separate movement, he repeats the aborted cadence several times, giving the effect of an improviser (presumably the composer) asking himself, “What on earth am I going to do next?” The repeated cadence grows more and more urgent until he finally breaks out into new gestures, recollections, continuity and interruption, suggesting less of the updated classical style, perhaps, than Harbison did in his Haydn response, but nonetheless a lively and witty conclusion, with a brilliant close for the quartet, to Mozart’s mysterious fragment.

It has been a long time since I have heard a program that was simultaneously so original in conception and so thrillingly performed. The Brentano Quartet will be performing this program all over the country this season, and it is well worth catching.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

 

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