As the Rockport Chamber Music Festival reaches the end of its first season in its new and magnificent concert hall, it is becoming clear that summer music in New England has entered a new phase. It is now possible seriously to contemplate performances of a caliber and repertoire that were only suitable for the cooler months. The Rockport summer season thus concludes this weekend, beginning with two performances by the nominally Princeton-based (the players appear all to be New Yorkers) Brentano Quartet, comprising Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins, Misha Amory, viola, and Nina Lee, cello. Their program Thursday, July 15 consisted of two late masterworks from the First Viennese School, the Haydn Quartet in F major, op. 77 No. 2 (sometimes numbered 67; Hoboken catalogue III:82), and that Alp of technical and conceptual difficulty, Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, op. 131. Between these, they performed the New England premiere of Stephen Hartke’s Night Songs for a Desert Flower, commissioned for them by the Harvard Musical Association and Carnegie Hall.
The Haydn quartet, his last completed work in the genre, dates from 1799 and was part of an ambitious commissioning project by Prince F. J. M. Lobkowitz, which also bagged him the six quartets of Beethoven’s op. 18. He wanted six from Haydn as well, but the composer, beset by minor distractions such as the late masses, The Creation and The Seasons, came up with only two. Some have suggested that the composer was carefully husbanding his waning energies for these big projects and coasting a bit on the Prince’s quartets. The F major, while not as obviously recherché as some of the op. 76 set of a year or two earlier, is everything one would wish in late Haydn — subtle, clever, learned and vastly entertaining, all at once. There are, especially in the development of the first movement, touches reminiscent of the London Symphony. Its second movement, unusually by this stage of Haydn’s development, is the minuet, which belies all the clichés about Haydn’s minuets by being, first, rather fast, and second, rhythmically spiced with off-accents. The slow movement is also a brisk Allegretto set of variations, and the finale, in the guise of folksy geniality, delivers a rhythmic propulsion that puts paid to the “sick old man” hypothesis.
The Brentano approached this autumnal work with a seemingly contradictory mix of regal composure and hands-on relish. Their phrase shaping was elegant, their rhythms executed with verve and — you may see this next word repeated a bit here — precision, notably in the octave and unison ending of the first movement. We’re not sure whether this is an individual quirk of this group or a regional feature — sort of a musical New York accent — but the players are given greatly to expressions of body English of one kind or another (all except the stoical Mr. Amory). Steinberg likes to twist about in his seat, Canin to a lesser extent. Lee, however, cultivates facial expressivity of a most voluble sort: smirking here, frowning there (of this, more later), smiling benignly at cleverness and felicities in the music. Cute, up to a point; audiences paying to see live performances should, we agree, get some good visuals. A good thing can, however, be carried too far, and this may be the only real negative thing to say about Thursday’s performance.
The Hartke Night Songs, the composer explained (quoted in the program note; he was not present at the performance), started out to be a regular old string quartet (it’s got the regular old four movements all in the “right” order), but his materials just called out to be treated more like madrigals, with self-contained mini-dramas. And so they were, although one could so describe all regular old string quartets and classical concert music generally. Be that as it may, this 2009 work is full of delights. The first movement, called “Madrigal,” gets off to a light, lyrical start, deepens in timbre and intensity, and eventually fades to black on muted strings. The slow movement, aptly named “Lament,” is intense, with several subgroup dialogues punctuated by anguished tutti outbursts. There are many lovely changes of color and sonority and some beautifully performed second violin solos in harmonics from Canin. The third movement, an intermezzo à la Brahms rather than a scherzo, echoes the coloration and affect of the first movement before ending in a pensive mood. The finale pits a pumping 5/4 rhythm in the cello against sul ponticello and col legno effects for the others, then everyone picks up the rhythmic idea; later iterations vary the leading role. This movement also reverberates with material from earlier movements, most impressively from the slow movement, before ending quietly on the rhythmic figure. The playing throughout was exceptionally tight and seemed to us to be right on the money.
Sylvia Hyslop’s program note on the Beethoven counsels, quoting Schumann, not to attempt to describe it in words, but simply to let oneself be overwhelmed by the ineffable majesty of Beethoven’s notes. Yes, well, … as it happens, a great many words have been written to plumb this most recondite of Beethoven’s (or, indeed, anyone’s) compositions, not least by Richard Wagner, who characterized the work as a whole with a paraphrase from Goethe’s Faust: a day that fulfills not a single desire; not one. You can see a translation of Wagner’s fanciful attempt to cast this quartet as a tone poem avant la lettre here at pages 104-5. Ms. Hyslop to the contrary notwithstanding, concertgoers who have not heard this work a lot recently may wish to have a proper description of this rather complicatedly structured work, which Wikipedia duly provides here.
More than most works in the classical repertory, indeed even more than most Beethoven works, this quartet carries a burden of masterpiece mythology: this is Very Serious Heavy Stuff that performers and audiences must approach with girded loins and high cerebral engagement. For our part, we had hoped that younger ensembles like the Brentano would try to dispel this attitude and simply let the notes speak for themselves. Our hopes were not fully realized, to some extent owing to factors already discussed: everybody was wearing his or her Very Serious, Heavy Stuff face, and they contorted their bodies around the notes as if to mimic the harmonic permutations of the score. Still, this was a first-rate performance, also for reasons previously mentioned: the watchwords here were smoothness and precision. Some performances we have heard of this work, by the great quartets of their day, have sounded a bit rough and unhinged, especially in the scherzo (fifth movement of seven) and finale. We found that the Brentano did not need to sacrifice anything of the propulsive power of these sections to achieve clarity and proportionality of sound. The only quibble we have about this approach is that it may have made for too careful and cautious a reading of the central slow movement, a fairly simple theme and its seven-and-a-half complex variations. We are of two minds about that, since clarity and precision are virtues with this movement, when they point the listener to the sometimes tenuous relation between the variations and the theme. We were similarly impressed with the stunning clarity of the trills and the rumbling thunder shakes in the third and sixth variations, respectively.
A further contribution to the discussions concerning the sonic properties of the Shalin Liu Concert Center came from a discussion we had with Tom Stephenson, the hall’s recording engineer, who from his perspective finds the hall a very warm and friendly place for recording. So far, he has only recorded live performances, with typically full houses. Just add that to the mix of information about whether the sound lacks reverb. For our part the hall only enhanced the clarity and (here it is again) precision of the quartet’s playing. For the record, the first half of the concert saw the rear window uncovered (treating the audience to a magnificent transition from dusk to night over Rockport harbor).