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Hartke, Hartke, the Lark!

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/03/2010 -  
Franz Josef Haydn: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2
Stephen Hartke: Night Songs for a Desert Flower (NY Premiere, co-commissioned by Harvard Musical Association and Carnegie Hall)
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131

Brentano String Quartet: Mark Steinberg, Serena Canin (Violins), Misha Amory (Viola), Nina Lee (Cello)

Brentano String Quartet (© Christian Steiner)

The Brentano String Quartet pulled a neat truck last night bookending their concert with two near-final quartets by two of the three greatest quartet-makers.

Haydn never wrote a complete quartet after his Opus 77, No. 2, and Beethoven only wrote a single string quartet after Opus 131. (His Opus 132 was written prior to the C-sharp minor.)

One really shouldn’t judge personal character by music, but the Brentano String Quartet, with 18 years of performing, might have unveiled the truth about exhibiting one’s inner self as one’s world spins to an end.

Haydn, though still had a decade to live, and while he had his problems, this late music was as sunny as any youthful experience. He had escaped the wintry confines of Esterházy Palace (I once spent a night there, and it makes the word “frigid” seem fiery hot.). His freedom brought about a Quartet that breathes freshness in every measure.

Yet this was always classical in the Classical sense, and this was how the Brentano played it. While naught is disinterested with these four players, they always obey the rules. The “presto” direction for the minuet (an obvious Haydn jape) didn’t seem that fast at all. It was clear, a bit bumptious, but hardly a laugh riot. The beautiful Andante was taken at the Brentano’s refined best, which Haydn probably would have appreciated

Nobody need exaggerate Haydn. His wit for appreciative London audiences (rather than the fat grouchy plutocrats of the Hungarian Empire), was like the playing of he Brentano String Quartet. The sudden dynamic changes, the false endings, the changes of meter, were taken at an even temperate pace. England in the 1790’s wanted their wit clever, not urgent. This was how the Brentano performed it.

The Beethoven penultimate Quartet was an entirely different situation. No matter what his personal side, Beethoven’s musical conflicts were far more complex than those of Papa Haydn. (Could anyone imagine calling crabby Ludwig “Papa Beethoven”??) Thus, in the words of First Violinist Mark Steinberg, the climax of the piece, “shows only the reflection of heavens in the eyes of the man whose feet are firmly planted on the earth: string and proud of his humanity, holding an equally vast universe within.”

Nice words. In fact, Mr. Steinberg’s program notes should be retained as much for their verbal artistry as his bow gets from his instrument.

The C Sharp Minor is an enigma to be questioned. Why did he begin with a difficult fugue? Why did he end with a precious little dance? Unlike Haydn, Beethoven’s humor was mordant, sometimes acerbic. His reasoning was chimerical.

The Brentano String Quartet obviously saw the challenges, but they probably solved them, which takes away some of the fascination. They were, as always, polished, their intonation was flawless, and they gave the narrative a deliberate literal reading. (Part of the vocalizing had the speaking tones of a Janácek.) But I found nothing exciting, no testing of the emotions.

That kind of playing is ideal for Haydn, even Brahms. But, even rejecting the psychology of the composer, one wants to be titillated, annoyed at times. This was all too perfect.

The middle piece was by Stephen Hartke, who graced the audience with his presence. He had described the beautifully titled Night Songs for a Desert Flower as influenced by the madrigal form. True, the counterpoint was complex, but no word painting was even attempted.

Holding the movements together were some stunning duets for violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin. English and Italian madrigals use commonplace birdsong metaphors, and their chirping, interweaving duo, while not literally lark-like, offered lyrical interludes in a work of gentle elegiac polyphony.

Harry Rolnick



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