Leah Hollingsworth hears the foursome perform at Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92Y on 9 March 2019
My best concert advice is never to pass up an opportunity to hear the Brentano Quartet. The New York premiere of Martin Bresnick’s String Quartet no.4 ‘The Planet on the Table’ (2018) opened the evening, providing a ‘musical meditation on [a Wallace Stevens poem], on the transformational value of art, on the power of the creative act’, according to first violinist Mark Steinberg.
The Brentano Quartet has the ability to captivate the ear, and the intensity and total commitment with which the players approached this work was no exception. Cellist Nina Lee played tremendously in the second movement – her ponticello was ethereal and her soaring melodic lines were haunting, mournful, and achingly lovely. The players created an atmosphere of stillness and expectation in the third movement, and painted a sound picture of hope in the fourth. The final movement developed material from the first in new ways and the quartet managed a light-hearted sensibility that was neither trite nor blasé. Radio host Fred Child gave a powerful reading of selections of Stevens’s poetry after the quartet performance.
Beethoven’s incomparable String Quartet in A minor op.132 followed, with projections of Stevens’s poetry in the background. The timing of the projections was impeccable: thoughtful, provocative and utterly beautiful, although at times I found it distracted from the experience of the music. Steinberg’s playing was both precise and also understated, his power coming not from the richness of his sound or the intensity of his dynamics, but from the intensity and intentionality of each note. The second movement had a lovely lilt, with spacious phrases and a gentleness that was strangely water-like (‘flowing always the same / though never the same way twice’ projected from the Stevens). The slow movement was breathtaking and perfectly proportioned: ‘exquisite’ fails to do justice. The quartet ended with balance, intelligence of phrasing, and a rich depth of beauty that comes from only the greatest of artists.