Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Late String Quartets
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824-25) [37:20]
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [40:19]
Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg (violin); Serena Canin (violin); Misha Armory (viola); Nina Maria Lee (cello))
rec. 24-27 Oct 2010, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University.
AEON AECD 1110 [78:21]
Formed in 1992, the Brentano Quartet took their name from the supposed identity of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” Antonie Brentano and thereby signalled that they felt a special affinity with the composer’s music. Appointed in 1999 Princeton’s University’s first quartet-in-residence, they have, over twenty years, built a formidable reputation without making more than a handful of recordings mostly of music by modern composers. This recording of “classical” repertoire will be of great interest to their admirers, especially those in the UK where they were awarded the Royal Philharmonic Award for the Most Outstanding Debut and have appeared regularly in London’s Wigmore Hall.
Knowing their reputation for fiery music-making, I confess to being a little disappointed by the careful manner of their opening of the first movement of Op.127. “Maestoso”. Surely the music calls for more attack than they give it here – although in the reprise of that opening subject they find more bite, so presumably that was a conscious artistic choice to contrast the two statements of the same music; I’m not sure it works. They are clearly highly refined artists, with impeccable tuning, maintaining a lovely equilibrium amongst their instruments and giving each its distinctive voice without sacrificing unity – but I could wish for more risk-taking and more thwack and strum of gut. Nor do I find the tone of Mark Steinberg’s lead violin very voluptuous; indeed I occasionally find it scrawny, although I assume this is deliberate. They are again very poised and restrained in the opening Adagio of Op.131, achieving the requisite sense of “deep space melancholy”. That said, I prefer more overt emotionalism: more variation in dynamics, the odd note leaned into expressively, the occasional stutter or hesitation to convey weight of feeling such as I hear even in the Medici’s bargain set. After all, the instruction is “molto espressivo”.
Both quartets have at their hearts an extended movement consisting of variations. There is no doubt about the technical skill of this quartet to encompass their demands and I find these two long cantabile movements to be the most successful in the whole recital. The Brentano find the voice, mood and, indeed, the emotional heart appropriate to each variation. They weld them in to an aesthetically satisfying whole rather than delivering them as a succession of showpieces – although I confess I cannot explain how they do it.
These are very personal responses and preferences; others might respond more positively to a restraint and intimacy that for me sometimes borders on the dull. The sound from Aeon is exemplary: warm and resonant. The fold-out cardboard case and booklet are beautifully and tastefully presented with elegant photographs and intelligent – if faintly pretentious - notes by the lead violinist.
A restraint and intimacy that sometimes borders on the dull.