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Contrasts and comparisons: Brentano String Quartet’s concert of Stravinsky miniatures

CMNW artists-in-residence perform the composer’s chamber works with complementary music by Cage, Machaut, Gesualdo, Verdi, and Beethoven

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The Brentano String Quartet’s “A Tribute to Stravinsky” Dec. 3 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall invited the audience on a thought-provoking journey. But you had to listen up — and read up — and keep your mind wide open, because there was a lot to understand. The members of this 29-year-old Juilliard-hatched group are musicians and teachers.

As Chamber Music Northwest’s artists-in-residence, Brentano members (violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, cellist Nina Lee, and violist Misha Amory) are consistently praised for their intelligence, elegance and precision. In this concert, they displayed those qualities many times over, and amplified them with their immense technical skill and tight, coherent playing.

The group’s international reputation— and perhaps the audience’s interest in Igor Stravinsky — is so solid that the Dec. 3 concert was added after the Dec. 4 performance sold out at the 220-seat space. “Sold-out” meant the audience was seated at about 60 percent capacity due to Covid precautions.

It’s fitting that the Brentanos took on the challenge of explaining Stravinsky’s chamber music, a task designed only for the most accomplished musicians and cerebral music educators.

CMNW 2021-22 Artists-in-Residence, Brentano String Quartet, at Lincoln Recital Hall. Photo courtesy of Invisible Harness.
CMNW 2021-22 Artists-in-Residence, Brentano String Quartet, at Lincoln Recital Hall. Photo courtesy of Invisible Harness.

Stravinsky was controversial in 1913 when his mind-bending The Rite of Spring was heard, and though long dead, his music continues to stir up squabbles. Still, scholars agree that the Russian-born composer remains the most influential of the 20th century, continually reinventing his music. He died at 89 in 1971, so 50 years later is reason enough to pay homage. The Brentanos did that in a fiercely intellectual manner, creating a program that showcased pieces of Stravinsky’s late-in-life chamber music quartets and bracketing them among other composers’ music that contrasted with or influenced them. These were bites of music, which proved a thoughtful strategy in mollifying those of us who aren’t hardcore Stravinsky fans.

Pieces of John Cage’s 1950 “Quartet in Four Parts” book-ended Stravinsky’s “Concertina for String Quartet.” Though neither Cage nor Stravinsky much liked or admired one another’s work, their music illustrates a stark contrast in voices. Cage’s flowing, peaceful anything-goes work was a foil to Stravinsky’s “Concertina” that twitches and dances and tries to sing — much unlike the chamber-music quartets of his 19th-century predecessors. 

And so the concert’s first half went with contrasts and comparisons. Included among them: 14th-century Guillaume de Machaut’s motet, 20th-century Dmitri Shostakovich’s clownish polka, and a 19th-century Giuseppe Verdi “Ave Maria,” each enhancing and explaining parts of Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces for String Quartet.” No snippet was longer than six minutes and many were closer to two minutes, so even if the contrasts (or the Stravinsky) didn’t resonate, the moments were short.

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Amy Lowell’s poetry played a part, too. Lowell, an imagist poet who lobbied for concreteness and verbal precision, was moved by Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces for String Quartet” and wrote accompanying verse. A recording of German actress Barbara Sukowa (a regular in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films) giving refined readings of Lowell’s poems preceded each of the Stravinsky pieces. Oddly, a technician stepped onstage from backstage, presumably to check for the precise moment to start the recording. Unfortunately intrusive and inelegant, it was the only element that failed to maintain the polished professionalism of the Brentanos and their program.

The poetry added an unexpected twist, and Stravinsky, who liked to toss out surprises, no doubt would have approved.

The second part of the program brought change —and relief for some listeners — with longer, more harmonic pieces. Don’t know Carlo Gesualdo or his 16th-century “Three Madrigals”? They were written for voices, but “Stravinsky’s arrangements highlight the sense of rupture inherent in the often jagged, strident harmonic shift of the originals, the continuity of the musical rhetoric constantly under threat of tearing at the seams,” Brentano violinist Mark Steinberg wrote in the program notes. (As I said, these musicians are high-functioning educators.) Stravinsky unearthed Gesualdo and his sacred music, giving it more exposure in the 20th century.

The evening’s last piece was Ludwig van Beethoven’s final quartet among his sixteen. He composed the 25-minute String Quartet No. 16 in F-Major, Op. 135 shortly before his death, when he was completely deaf. The Brentanos’ performance pointed to its lightness, translucency, and kaleidoscopic range and moodiness, places where Beethoven and Stravinsky might have met.

Though in his younger years Stravinsky badmouthed Beethoven, the 19th-century composer became a Stravinsky favorite when he reached 80 years old. As British poet and Stravinsky friend Stephen Spender wrote in “Late Stravinsky Listening to Late Beethoven”:

At the end, he listened only to

Beethoven’s Posthumous Quartets.

Some we played so often

you could only hear the needle in the groove.

Delectable to you

Beethoven’s harsh growlings, hammerings,

Crashings on picked strings, his mockery at

The noises in his head, imprisoning him

In shouting deafness.

Stephen Spender, “Late Stravinsky Listening to Late Beethoven”

The Brentano String Quartet, by the way, is named for Antonie Brentano. Many believed her to be “Beethoven’s `Immortal Beloved,’ the intended recipient of his famous love confession,” according to the program notes.

And there you have it, the Beethoven connection to Stravinsky and to this brilliantly attuned string quartet. The final piece proved a perfect fit for this enormously scholarly evening of finely wrought chamber music.

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About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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