Conventional wisdom dictates that members of a string quartet can take many years or even decades of playing together before they achieve sufficient individuality of sound and artistry to be considered a world-class ensemble. Fortunately, for impatient chamber music lovers throughout the world, the Brentano String Quartet disproves that theory. Named for Antonie Brentano, reputed to be Beethoven’s still secret “Immortal Beloved,” the quartet was formed in 1992 and in 1995 won the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music Award. They were the opening artists on the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s Masters Series on Sunday afternoon, October 20, in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater. Special guest pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn joined the quartet in the second half, playing a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand piano. (See our news archives for a note on this instrument.)

There was a great buzz in the air because of the unveiling of this 9’6″ piano, which stood on the stage like a great black monolith, wrapped in legend and mystery. The audience would have to wait, however, because the first half was all Brentano, and their consummate playing quickly put the Bösendorfer in the background. Mark Steinberg, first violin, Serena Canin, second violin, Misha Amory, viola, and Nina Maria Lee, cello, strode onto the stage, where three out of the four chairs were doubled up to increase the height. Steinberg made some introductory remarks about the opening work by Josquin, since this early Renaissance composer is virtually never heard on string quartet recitals. “Josquiniana” is an arrangement by composer Charles Wuorinen of six secular works by Josquin, and the seemingly simple set of pieces served as a charming and unique opener. Right from the start there was an immediate rhythmic energy and cohesiveness that forced listeners to hang onto every note. At times, the instruments sounded like viols instead of a modern string quartet, and the musicians used wonderful effects to simulate the original vocal inflections.

The next work was “Concertino,” a six-minute gem by Igor Stravinsky. Although written in 1920 for string quartet, the composer made an arrangement of the neoclassical work for ten winds, violin, and cello in 1952. Stravinsky favored the later version, so this was a rare opportunity to hear it in its original form, and there was a certain irony in the reading of this “original” edition, coming as it did on Wuorinen’s updating of Josquin! The Stravinsky aptly illustrates the composer’s view that “…expression has never been an inherent property of music”; he insisted that every note be played precisely and only as he had indicated. Despite that rather mechanical description, it is a delightful piece that instantly conveys the essence of Stravinsky. The playing was as tight as a drum, with crisp articulation and a wonderful spirit that left us wanting more.

Mozart’s last String Quartet, in F, K.590, was the final work on the first half. Its brightness and joy belies the composer’s then-dismal personal situation. Any string quartet invariably needs to turn to these masterworks to prove that they can even be considered among the great ensembles. This performance was one of the finest readings of Mozart in any form that I have heard. The group played with effortless grace in quick scale passages, projected beautiful blend while retaining rich individual tone colors, and projected a wonderful sense of the character of each movement. This performance also displayed what is probably the most difficult trait to attain – a feeling of spontaneity and freshness in a work that obviously needs to be rehearsed a great deal. At intermission, I overheard several remarks concerning the Brentano’s enthusiasm in this performance, as if it were a bad thing; my favorite among them came from a woman who snippily said that she prefers her Mozart “without aerobics.” Actually, this was a good line, but I don’t understand it in this context. Do people prefer a rigid, statue-like demeanor instead of an honest display of emotion and outward feeling of the music? One can always hear recordings, but seeing musicians play should and often does include their physical responses as the music comes through them to the listeners.

At the start of intermission, the piano lid was raised to reveal a highly polished backing that reflected the interior of the instrument. The resulting glow created a wonderful visual effect. Pianist and conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of Nobel-prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, joined the quartet for a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 1, Op. 89. The guest artist was interviewed by our occasional colleague Roy C. Dicks for a recent article in The News and Observer , and in that “What’s Up” preview, Solzhenitsyn said, revealingly, that “The Op. 89 is very evocative. It requires patience from both musicians and audience. It takes its time in revealing its wonders and doesn’t do so in the way of the German masters. It never really unfolds but stays in a dream world. The challenge is finding enough color and variety to bring it across.”

It is curious that a program that turned out to be as much about the Triangle debut of a legendary piano as it was about the Brentano Quartet should use such a work to display this instrument’s unique qualities, but it is a fact that the Bösendorfer was obtained (from Ruggero Piano) only when the Steinway the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild intended to use turned out to be unavailable. Impressionist in mood and style, the quintet starts off with Debussy-like effects in the piano and draws one into a lovely, ethereal mood – from which there is no way out. The playing was sensitive, and the piano stayed in first gear so as not to overwhelm the mere wood and strings of the quartet. “Contrast” and “dynamic range” are attributes that would never be used to describe this work. Relentless in its melancholy and introspection, its “dream world” threatens slumber at any moment. I can’t help but contrast this with the wonderfully concise and eloquent “Concertino” in the first half. Stravinsky described it perfectly when he said, “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”

The afternoon began with music by Boccherini and Haydn, played in the Fletcher Theater’s donor room by a string quartet from NCSU. Its members were Diana Proffit and Patrick Liu, violins, Danielle Proffit, viola, and Kerry Pumphrey, cello.

Incidentally, Solzhenitsyn returns to the Triangle next season for a Great Artists Series solo recital and several performances as pianist with and conductor of the NC Symphony.

Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.