The energetic Brentano Quartet appeared in Hill Hall in Chapel Hill on Thursday evening, November 10, in a program sponsored by the William S. Newman Artists Series. They will perform again in the Triangle on Thursday, March 30, with soprano Elizabeth Keusch, in works by Schoenberg and Webern, in UNC’s renovated Memorial Hall – don’t miss them!

Violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Maria Lee have played together for some twelve or thirteen years now. They have won numerous awards and have received considerable accolades wherever they have appeared all across America and around the world, and they have built a reputation for engaging performances, crisp articulation, and a blend of tone that reflects their years of working together.

The program opened with Franz Joseph “Papa” Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 64, No. 3. It was composed for London theatre audiences but retains most of the charm, elegance, and intimacy of the Esterhazy compositions. Haydn was quite comfortable by this time with the sonata form he established for the quartets and symphonies – a form he would leave as a heritage and a model to be followed for many generations to come. Although he would continue to experiment with different approaches to solving musical challenges – and different ways of improving his format – the structure was pretty well set. The first movement (Vivace assai) is full of energy, lively and lyrical at the same time. The second movement (Adagio) is delicious, and here it flowed smoothly as an Austrian mountain rill. The third movement (Menuetto), the most interesting of the four, is playful, seeming at times to be falling apart and stopping, only to start up again. It is like a child hopping and skipping down a narrow road toward home. The Finale is frantic and racing with occasional pauses for reflection, after which it hurries along on its merry way. It was a joy to hear, and the Brentano made it dramatic, lilting, and fun.

The Beast came next on the program in the form of György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2 (1968). As the Haydn quartet was an example of classical elegance and charm, this was an outstanding example of 20th-century avant-garde – dramatic, demanding, and emotionally draining. About two and a half minutes into the performance, one of the cello’s strings snapped, in the middle of a very vigorous passage. Lee retired from the stage, but not finding the needed string, asked for help from a cellist – any cellist – in the audience… – and got it! While this was going on, I noticed the markings of the first movement are “Allegro nervoso,” and we still had to look forward to the fourth movement, marked “Presto, furioso, brutale, tumultoso!” It may have been merely a coincidence that, last year, the second violinist of the New Zealand Quartet, performing the same composer’s First Quartet, fell victim to the same fate. Perhaps any quartet that performs Ligeti should come on stage with a complete set of replacement strings.

The cello string having been replaced and tuned, we got to hear the piece from the start again. The excellent program notes, copyrighted by Misha Amory (the Haydn and Ligeti) and Mark Steinberg (the Debussy), pointed out that the unifying theme of the Ligeti is not to be found in melody or harmony or rhythm but rather in texture. I was not quite sharp enough to follow it, but it does make sense. The first movement alternated between vicious attacks and mysterious overtones. The second was almost lyrical, seeming at times to want to burst into song, but it kept getting interrupted by outbursts of protest. The third movement, almost all pizzicato and marked “with mechanical precision” (in Italian, of course), seemed to be out of sync at times, like an Ives piece with three different things going on at the same time, but then it would fall back together in unison or duet. The composer must have had a ball writing this music. The fourth movement, with the dynamic markings quoted above, was music that seemed to be wrestling with something absolutely terrifying. It was brief but awesome in its power. The closing movement began with a sound that put me in mind of angry bees buzzing to warn an intruder away from the hive. There was a feeling of something coming, then a brief lyrical moment, then more wrestling and struggle, then another almost lyrical passage, hushed in the background, fading away…, and then the quartet was over. It was as though all of us in the audience had been through something together. It was strange, yet familiar, like a dream one wakes from and breathes a sigh of relief that it was only a dream. This quartet left a feeling of satisfaction, like something was worked through that needed to be worked through.

The Beauty came after intermission in the form of the French romanticism of Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. Replete with all the impressionistic trademarks – parallel fifths, whole-tone scales, oriental like tunes, etc. – it filled the room with rapturous tones. Portions of the Andantino sounded suggestive, at least, of l’Après-midi d’un faune. The mostly-pizzicato second movement was openly playful and a pure delight. The delicious cello passages in the fourth movement, passed up to the viola and the violins, were just gorgeous, with the texture of Victorian velvet.

As stated earlier, the Brentano Quartet is well worth hearing whenever you have the opportunity. Their programs are often characterized by a wide variety of eras and styles, and they are equally accomplished in each. On this occasion, I preferred the Beast to Papa and the Beauty, but all provided pleasure and satisfaction.