On Saturday night at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, in the Brentano String Quartet’s musically thoughtful and exceptionally executed program, Charpentier’s Suite for Strings (originally for an ensemble of viols and thus a work for proto-string quartet) seemed an inevitable prelude for Debussy’s G minor quartet, which heralded Brahms’ famously difficult B-flat quartet, Op. 67.
The Shalin Liu Performance Center had its backdrop window shuttered, in its normal practice for nighttime events; this results in a more intimate space. With nothing to distract one’s attention from the four performers on stage, the ear was more acutely drawn into the world of subtle sonic nuance which thrived just below the surface of unquestionable virtuosity.
The Charpentier was written as a Concert for four viols, and exhibits the Italian influence on his work as well as his 17th-century Gallic sensibilities. Singing lines interact with rhythmic pulses, and counterpoint weave rich harmonies, including many of what would today be called cross-relations (chromatic harmonies wherein multiple “flavors” of a single note, say B and B-flat, are explored). The suite included two preludes, although the second was truly an Allemande, and two gigues, one in the English style and one French. In these gigues in particular, but really throughout the performance, the attention and care given to the ornamentation was exceptional. Pulling from a veritable encyclopedia of possible and very specific baroque ornaments, the members of the Brentano showed how at home they are in this sound world. Complex ornaments were executed crisply but without overstepping their limits of embellishing a line, which was ever enriched rather than obfuscated by their commentary. Add to this impeccable intonation and a clear sense of the work’s style (neither affectatious nor attempting to “modernize” Charpentier), and the result was close to flawless.
Staying with French repertoire but jumping ahead three centuries, the players followed with Debussy’s sole string quartet. Again the ensemble hit a home run, attacking the work aggressively while also keeping an ear tuned to nuance, surprise, shape, and line. A novel type of rhythmic mannerism usually found in works like Daphnis et Chloe, which caused this reviewer to raise an eyebrow or two novel during the first movement, eventually convinced him. In a movement where rhythmic pulse dominates, these suspensions at first seemed like strange artifacts, but through consistent use and the same subtly and self-assuredness which informed the Charpentier ornaments, they became effective and enriching.
The Brentano Quartet’s technical mastery includes its command of a seemingly infinite tonal color palette. This was on full display throughout the Debussy, but especially in the second movement. The third movement Andantino beautifully breathed with a life both iridescent and delicate, profound and simple. The work rocked in the finale, as the tempo and tension slowly ratcheted up to escape-velocity.
Brahms’s chamber music is notoriously difficult; his sound world is rich and complex, and given over more to orchestral timbre and forces than the more intimate settings of other composers’ quartets and quintets. Of all the master’s chamber music, the quartets are held to be the most difficult, and the B-flat Op. 67 as chief among them in this distinction. But in this, as in the entire program, the group shined.
The style of the op. 67 is seemingly out of character for Brahms, whose music tends to be about grand journeys or profound statements, issued in a complex, rich, and ever developing way. But the lighthearted nature and seeming simplicity of Brahms’ musical material in this work does not make it superficial; instead it shows even more how any musical cell can be spun into a universe of fascinating and complex revelations and connections, and that this “Brahmsification” of what seem like trifles lend their realization a unique richness which can cause one to redefine “simple” and “complex”.
In the torrent of notes and harmonic fabric that followed, the Brentano quartet was aided by their vast tone-color palette, which allowed them to clarify and unify a score which easily could be scored for 8 or 10 players, yet one for which only four bore responsibility. The organically growing harmonies of the Andante, the rhythmical pulse of the off-beat Agitato, and the universe-within-a-universe of the concluding variation set were spun with grace and intelligence, and alternating doses of caresses and muscle. This is what Brahms’s music demands, and the op. 67 is like a Brahms-concentrate.
Enthusiastically received by a packed house, the foursome of violins Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, viola Misha Amory, and cello Nina Lee, wisely decided not to perform an encore. What more could they say? The Brentano has been part of the Rockport music scene since 1995; here’s hoping the long streak continues.