Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Brentano String Quartet Takes Up Jonathan Biss’ “Late Style” Baton

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances presented the second of four installments of Late Style, a concert series conceived by pianist Jonathan Biss. “Top Billing” for this program was given to the Brentano String Quartet of violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee. This ensemble played all four works on the program, joined for one of them by Biss and for another by violist Hsin-Yun Huang.

The strongest case for the series was made during Biss’ appearance in a performance of Edward Elgar’s Opus 84 piano quintet in A minor. While Elgar died at the age of 76 on February 23, 1934, a major shift in his approach to composition took place between 1918 and 1919. Over the course of those two years, he composed a violin sonata in E minor (Opus 82), a string quartet also in E minor (Opus 83), the piano quintet, and the Opus 85 cello concerto (yet again in E minor). While these were far from his final efforts, they are the last pieces he composed before he began to fall out of favor with a listening public that was developing a taste for modernism. Each of these four pieces is a significant enough departure from Elgar’s preceding work that, taken as a group, they may be said to constitute his “late style.”

This is not to say that the music was particularly forward-looking. Elgar had pretty much departed from the chamber music genre at the turn of the century, and Opus 84 was his last major chamber music effort. The prevailing rhetoric is one of melancholy retrospection, but Elgar was no stranger to depression over much of the course of his life. Those with rich listening experience will have no trouble picking out retrospective influences of Johannes Brahms, along with occasional nods to Robert Schumann. However, there are also generous glances back at Elgar’s works for large ensembles, almost as if he was trying to distill his past achievements down to a more intimate scale.

I probably should observe that I first heard Opus 84 in concert about 30 years ago. Last night was only my second opportunity. I have, of course, a recording (which couples Opus 83 and Opus 84); but a regular diet of actual performance is necessary to keep the mind refreshed. On this particular occasion, having become familiar with the overall shape of the quintet through a recording, there was much to refresh in the immediacy of a concert setting. Most important may have been that, beyond any lexical references to the past, Opus 84 is structured “in the large” around an idée fixe that is neither as dramatic as the programmatic theme for Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique” nor as abstract as the descending scale pattern that pervades Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) symphony in B minor. In Elgar’s case the recurring pattern is basically one of nostalgia, and one might almost say that the entire quintet is a struggle between embracing nostalgia and getting over it.

After such a long absence from a concert setting, last night’s performance felt like an encounter with an old friend but also like a gust of fresh air in finding its own distinct expressive voice. Biss was always properly balanced with the string players, never short-changing any of the virtuosity but always far more attentive to the overall texture. (For the record, Elgar’s piano music is about as sparse as his chamber music.)  All four quartet players brought out a solid command of their respective parts and the roles played by each of the four voices in establishing thematic content. I just hope I do not have to wait another 30 years for my next concert encounter with this music.

By way of contrast, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 614 string quintet in E-flat major was written during the final year of his life. Thus, it can definitely be placed in the “last works” category; but whether or not it is distinguished by a “late style” is more open to question. The fact is that this music has the same sunny disposition that can be encountered in many other Mozart chamber music compositions for strings and even some for small string ensembles. In many respects it is as “upbeat” as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 135 string quartet in F major, performed at the first Late Style concert. Both pieces may be taken as looking back on happier days, but neither piece shows any signs of wallowing in nostalgia or regret. Rather, each is an affirmation that “business as usual” from earlier days can still be sustained.

This was the selection for which Huang joined Brentano. Playing second viola, she fit seamlessly into the rich fabric of counterpoint that Mozart had woven. She clearly knew how to find the right chemistry to grasp the sense of the whole in such a way that one could almost assume that the whole group was actually a quintet that had been playing together for some time. That yielded a spontaneously fresh rhetoric that was probably the most appropriate fit for the spirited energy that Mozart conceived for this music.

The remainder of the program was a bit more perplexing, basically because neither of the other two selections was written for string quartet. Most curious was a string quartet arrangement by Bruce Adolphe of five madrigals composed by Carlo Gesualdo and published in his sixth book of madrigals in 1611, two years before his death. Gesualdo’s music became very popular following the Second World War due to the almost outrageous approaches he could take to handling dissonances. Igor Stravinsky was so taken with these madrigals that he orchestrated three of them (adding a few modifications of his own) as “Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD annum.” The last of those three, “Beltà, poi che t’assenti,” was one of the madrigals that Adolphe arranged.

While one could appreciate Gesualdo’s radical departure from the conventions of his day in a string quartet performance, there was still some sense that the content had been undermined. After all, these pieces were written as settings of text; and the intensity of Gesualdo’s musical rhetoric could be taken as his own reaction to the intensity of the poems he had chosen. Thus, the absence of any text (including translations of the madrigal titles) from the program book reduced Adolphe’s arrangements to an exercise in abstract music that was never intended to be abstract in the first place. There is far more to Gesualdo than his adventures with harmonic ambiguity; but last night provided no hint as to what that “more” was.

The evening opened with four of the fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1080, The Art of Fugue. This did not need transcription. Bach wrote these on multiple staves with no instrument specification. Indeed, given how committed Bach was to pedagogy, it is questionable whether he wrote these demonstrations of writing counterpoint to be performed at all. Nevertheless, the music does get performed; and, since Bach died while writing one of the fugues, BWV 1080 definitely counts as a “last work.” Again, however, it is unclear whether this is an example of “late style.” Bach was writing music for pedagogical purposes throughout his life, probably since his first son was ready to start music lessons. It would be fair to say that such efforts were concerned more with craft than with style; and, indeed, over the course of all of his pedagogical writings throughout his life, Bach’s diversity of styles was positively prolific.

On a more positive side, there is much to be gained from understanding counterpoint by listening to it when one is listening to the voices spread across different instruments. Whether or not the music was meant to be played, Brentano played it with a clarity through which one could at least begin to appreciate how much thought Bach had put into each of his fugues. The result was a transformation from an exercise in composition to a journey of discovery through listening. Who can argue about a performance like that?

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