In his first season as music director of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, Barry Shiffman has tried to broaden the festival’s reach and diversify its offerings. Wisely, he’s also safeguarded its links to tradition by inviting back some of its more familiar artists. Paramount among those: the Brentano String Quartet, which performed at the Friday and Saturday festival concerts this weekend. Yet as familiar to Rockport audiences as the Brentano is, its Saturday concert featured one of the summer’s most inventive programs.
It began with an unusual but enlightening reading of Mozart’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, K.428. Tempos were deliberate, sometimes quite slow, but never for the sake of sentimentality. Rather, the Brentano used the extra space to elicit a remarkable amount of inner detail from music often played simply for melodic warmth. First violinist Mark Steinberg often let melodies recede deep into the background, the better to let contributions from second violinist Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee emerge. In the slow movement, they went out of their way to highlight the music’s chromaticism and dissonance, which were at points almost shocking. (However, they didn’t quite plumb the extraordinary sadness that lies at the center of this movement.) Apart from a few heavy-handed moments in the minuet, none of the Brentano’s ‘interventions’ made the music sound artificial; indeed, the value of the performance lay in how natural and effortless they made it all seem.
Dawn Upshaw joined the quartet for Il Tramonto, Respighi’s setting for mezzo-soprano and quartet of Shelley’s poem “The Sunset,” done more conventionally but with crack musicianship. The quartet created a melancholy, autumnal glow for Shelley’s love- and death-haunted story; Upshaw, produced a gleaming, rounded tone. Equally impressive was her responsiveness to the text: Near the end, she sang the line “calma e silenzio, senza peccato e senz passione” (“calm and silent, without sin or passion”) with extraordinary restraint and a chilling, washed-out tone.
The quartet began the second half by interweaving Webern’s Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9, with some early Minuets, D. 89, by Schubert. The idea, apparently, was to try to connect and find commonalities between two eminently Viennese voices. Ultimately, the gap between Webern’s furiously compact expression and Schubert’s jollity was simply too large to allow any new insight into either composer to emerge. While it may not have been a successful experiment, it’s the kind of risk-taking I wish more ensembles would try.
And the performances were outstanding, especially the Webern. Here was the kind of attentive, sympathetic music-making capable of mining each of Webern’s miniatures for the power residing in every note, every breathy texture — all done with a burnished, beautiful tone. (Ironically, they played the Schubert dances with a somewhat rougher edge.) In the fourth bagatelle, the Brentano conjured an entire alternate universe in music that spans under a minute.
Which brings us to Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, Op. 10, the program’s closer and a piece of visionary importance. It stands at a historical pivot point between tonality and atonality, with the composer pushing the former to its limits yet not ready to fully embrace the latter. But as Steinberg’s program note pointed out, this description only tells half the story. Even the supposedly “tonal” parts of the Second Quartet bristle with invention: the music is so restless that it barely finds time to alight anywhere for listeners to get their bearings. The last two movements include settings of poems by Stefan George for soprano: “I feel the air of alien planets,” the final movement begins, and no better description for the entire piece has ever been put forward. Those movements alternate between the late Romanticism from which Schoenberg developed his language and the new horizons that beckoned. The fragile final movement is written in no key yet ends, improbably, in F-sharp major. It’s as though Schoenberg was allowing himself a final look back at the musical cradle from which he had emerged, and to which he knew he had to bid farewell.
Again, the Brentano excelled, bringing warmth and plushness to the music without losing sight of its modernity. In the ranging tessitura of the Litany and Rapture movements, Upshaw brilliantly conveyed George’s ecstatic visions.