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, so 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" yes, but 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 opening Adagio of Op.131, achieving the requisite sense of "deep space melancholy" although 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, welding 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 which 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.
on 7 August 2015
'Strange beauties' was a term used by explorers of old to indicate territories lying beyond the known and mapped-out realms. These quartet performances are a little off the map for me. They are in fact just slightly eccentric and slightly mannered, and that would usually end my interest, but not this time. The tonal beauty of the playing and the recording has drawn me in, and the Brentanos also dig in rhythmically and add a host of subtle inflections that are very revealing and enliven their often very broad tempos. So if you have a taste to hear Beethoven with a somewhat different sound and feel than you may have heard before, this could be good.
But there are reasons for reservations. Their timing of 7:10 for the opening movement of Op. 127 is a full minute slower than most quartets, such as the outstanding Suske Quartet, and you would think that would allow them to highlight the "Maestoso" that Beethoven asked for there, but they don't, sounding more reserved than grand. So the main drawback here is not their slightly eccentric or individual point of view, the things they themselves add, but the fact that they sometimes overlook what is already there in the score. And in the final section that closes Op. 127, which Beethoven marked 'allegro con moto,' almost every quartet in the world insists--due to some odd tradition--on slowing down instead, turning that section into some kind of dreamy fantasia. So does the Brentano quartet. It should instead be a witty and rollicking close to an equally witty and energetic movement. (The Yale Quartet was one of the few exceptions.)
on 21 March 2014
This is the amazing Beethoven SQ made famous by the Hoffman/Walken film "A Late Quartet", the best movie about band dynamics since "Baker Boys". These are the musicians who played the music for real, and the cellist is the one who appears in one scene in the film. Even if you haven't seen the film, this is definitive --this are the SQ associated w/the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies (Einstein, Beautiful-Mind-Nash, and such), Julliard grads all -- you can really hear why everyone raves about Beethoven, it isn't all tutti bombast by any means. Required.