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The Brentano Quartet and Dawn Upshaw at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Dec 1st, 2017

The Brentano Quartet with Dawn Upshaw

On my way to hear the Brentano Quartet and Dawn Upshaw at Bard’s Lázló-Bitó Building this past Thursday night, I listened in the car to a well-regarded recording of Mozart’s Quartet No. 19 in C major, nicknamed “Dissonance.” I was annoyed by the thinness of the violins, which at times screeched, as well as the inconsistent dynamics in the recording. But that is why one attends a live concert: to escape meddling sound engineers, hear the warmth of instruments, feel the electricity of spontaneity, note the subtle unity of the players, enjoy the company.

I had last heard this quartet played by The Emerson Quartet, which presented a warmer and more intensely intimate emotional arc. I thought that I had understood this quartet as rooted in the emotions of Mozart’s daily life for the first time. The interpretation offered by The Brentano Quartet was thrilling, yet more abstract, deeply ironic, phrased with more tentative and delicate fragility, detached from time and history. This was a Rubik-cube puzzle that resisted solution and interpretation, a floating shape, a changing, elusive hologram. The analytic program notes provided by The Brentano Quartet were eloquent, detailed, and more brilliant than anything I could write, yet the notes were heavy with contemporary metaphors, trendy baggage from a different historical period.

Nina Lee on cello laid down a marvelous foundation for other strings to soar. On violin Mark Steinberg dominated the airy peak with pure tone. Serena Canin on violin glowed with spontaneous intensity. On viola Misha Amory secured a solid middle ground to unite the sound of violins and cello. The performance was exciting, fascinating, stimulating.  

Dawn Upshaw sang “Il Tramonto” (a Romantic Gothic Shelley poem, “The Sunset,” about a dead lover in Italian translation). Shelley’s smooth blank verse appeared more dramatic in rhyming Italian with irregular lines. Shelley’s gentle voice became more passionate—Upshaw registered that passion with visceral drama.

After a short break The Brentano Quartet interlarded five Franz Schubert waltzes, written when the composer was sixteen, with Six Bagatelles by Anton Webern. The point was to hint the similarity of the two Viennese schools with the rhythms of dance. We were to hear Webern’s minimalist gestures and moods as minimalist dance. This was an interesting proposition, yet I was unable to keep my footing in two different dimensions at the same time.  

Arnold Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 10 kept me on my toes. The second movement was astonishing, a new musical world to inhabit. A new revelation: unusual magical sounds. Even comic irony elbowed into the second movement. The third movement sets a poem by Stefan George (1868-1933), “Litany,” a religious poem of despair that concludes with hope. Upshaw conveyed desperate brusqueness desiring joy with powerful voice. Likewise, the fourth movement was a setting for another George poem, “Transcendence,” which created the drama of a more evanescent and humble quest for religious fulfillment. I preferred this poem and its setting to the previous poem and music. Upshaw conjured an Otherworld to which we may all aspire.