Opening the season with a sumptuous program of celebrated quartets by Haydn, Busoni, and Brahms, the Brentano String Quartet returns to the Series with music-making described by the London Independent as “Passionate, uninhibited and spellbinding.” Since 1992, the Quartet has appeared throughout the world to popular and critical acclaim: The New York Times extolled “luxuriously warm sound [and] yearning lyricism”; and The Philadelphia Inquirer praised it for “seemingly infallible instincts for finding the center of gravity in every phrase and musical gesture.”
About the sponsor
A member of Shriver Hall Concert Series’ Board of Directors since 1987 and retired from the Board
in 2012, Dr. J. Woodford Howard Jr. is the Thomas P. Stran Professor Emeritus at The Johns Hopkins University where he taught in and chaired the Department of Political Science. At the Series, Dr. Howard, who likes to be called “Woody,” was for many years Chair and now is a member of the Music Committee, which is responsible for the selection of artists and repertoire. Woody Howard has encyclopedic knowledge of chamber music and its performers. Mrs. Howard, known as Jane, also assumes an active role in volunteering for many Series projects from hosting Series events to administrative work. “The Howard Family Concert,” established in 2001 by Woody and Jane Howard together with their daughter and son-in-law Elaine and Jeffrey Christ, is designated for performances by string quartets.
Brentano String Quartet
Mark Steinberg, violin
Serena Canin, violin
Misha Amory, viola
Nina Lee, cello
Since its founding in 1992, the Brentano String Quartet— named for Antonie Brentano, whom many scholars consider to be Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved," the intended recipient of his famous love confession—has appeared throughout the world to popular and critical acclaim. Within a few years of its formation, the Quartet garnered the first Cleveland Quartet Award and the Naumburg Chamber Music Award; in 1996, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center invited the Quartet to be the inaugural member of Chamber Music Society Two, a program which has become a coveted distinction for chamber groups and individuals ever since. The Quartet had its first European tour in 1997 and was honored in the U.K. with the Royal Philharmonic Award for Most Outstanding Debut, at London's Wigmore Hall, and the Quartet has continued its warm relationship with Wigmore, appearing there regularly and serving as the Hall's Quartet-in-residence in the 2000-01 season.
In recent seasons, the ensemble has traveled widely, appearing throughout the United States and Canada, in Europe, Japan and Australia. It has performed in the world's most prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall in New York; the Library of Congress in Washington; the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; the Konzerthaus in Vienna; Suntory Hall in Tokyo; and the Sydney Opera House. It has participated in summer festivals such as Aspen, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, the Edinburgh Festival, the Kuhmo Festival in Finland, the Taos School of Music, and the Caramoor Festival. Beginning in June 2013, the Quartet will serve as the collaborative ensemble for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, succeeding the Takács Quartet.
In addition to performing the entire two-century range of the standard quartet repertoire, the Brentano has a strong interest in both very old and very new music. It has performed many musical works pre-dating the string quartet as a medium, among them Madrigals of Gesualdo, Fantasias of Purcell, and secular vocal works of Josquin. Also, the Quartet has worked closely with some of the most important composers of our time, having commissioned works from Wuorinen, Adolphe, Mackey, David Horne, and Gabriela Frank. The Brentano celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2002 by commissioning ten composers to write companion pieces for selections from Bach's Art of Fugue, the result of which was a wide-ranging single concert program. A similar project called “Fragments–Connecting Past and Present” will commemorates the 20th anniversary in 2011/12. For this program, the group has commissioned six composers to write works informed by incomplete pieces left behind by previous masters. The Quartet has also worked with the celebrated poet Mark Strand, commissioning poetry from him to accompany works of Haydn and Webern.
The Quartet has been privileged to collaborate with such artists as soprano Jessye Norman, pianist Richard Goode, and pianist Mitsuko Uchida. The Quartet enjoys an especially close relationship with Ms. Uchida, appearing with her on stages in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
The Brentano has recorded the Opus 71 Quartets of Haydn and a Mozart disc consisting of the K. 464 Quartet and the K. 593 Quintet with violist Hsin-Yun Huang. A forthcoming release features the Beethoven Quartets Op. 127 and 131. In newer music, the Quartet has released a disc of the music of Steven Mackey and the music of Bruce Adolphe, Chou Wen-chung, and Charles Wuorinen.
In 1998, cellist Nina Lee joined the Quartet, succeeding founding member Michael Kannen. The following season the Quartet became the first Resident String Quartet at Princeton University, where its duties include performances at least once a semester as well as workshops with graduate composers, coaching undergraduates in chamber music, and assisting in other classes in the Music Department.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet No. 30 in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, Hob. III:38
- I. Allegro moderato
- II. Scherzo
- III. Largo e sostenuto
- IV. Finale
When Joseph Haydn published his six Opus 33 String Quartets in 1781, they broke a nearly decade-long hiatus during which he had turned away from the chamber music form he had done more than any other composer to establish. It seems as though he wasn’t sure how to advance beyond his outstanding Opus 20 Quartets of 1772, especially how to create a greater sense of concentration and cohesion in this challenging medium. But now with the technique of “thematic elaboration,” as he called it, he believed he’d found the way forward.
These Quartets are sometimes called the “Russian Quartets” because Haydn dedicated them to Grand Duke Paul of Russia, later to become Tsar Paul I. They were probably first performed for the Grand Duke and his wife at their Viennese apartment on Christmas Day 1781. They were the product of a period of personal happiness in the composer’s life. Haydn had made a bad marriage to a woman who cared little for either her husband or his extraordinary music, but for this devout Catholic, divorce was out of the question. A mistress, however, was not, and during the early 1780s, Haydn enjoyed a devoted liaison with Luigia Polzelli, an Italian soprano employed by the Esterházy court who was 28 years his junior. His musicians may have called him “Papa,” but Haydn’s marriage was childless; Polzelli bore a son believed to be his whom he adored and helped to educate.
Perhaps this happiness is reflected in the Opus 33 Quartets, which have a much lighter and more engaging style than the quartets of 1772. In a promotional letter to possible subscribers, Haydn described them as being “written in a new and special way.” The most obvious novelty is that the dominance of the first violin part is much reduced, and all four instruments share more equally in the thematic presentation and development. In the E-flat Quartet we’ll be hearing today, the slow movement’s beautiful theme is first presented by the viola. But even more important is Haydn’s exploitation of “thematic elaboration,” in which the expansion, fragmentation, and variation of the elements of a core theme are used to generate an entire movement and not just its development section.
Circulated throughout Europe, the Opus 33 Quartets became extremely popular. Now a close friend of Haydn’s, Mozart admired them so much he was inspired to write his “Haydn” Quartets as a creative response and tribute.
First Movement: Using thematic elaboration, Haydn works his sprightly opening theme intensely— immediately seizing on its two-note upbeat and ascending shape to generate the material for the exposition section of this sonata form. He has no need for a separate contrasting second theme: just a reshuffled variant of the opening theme does the job. The development section features a glorious expansion of the theme, enriched with elaborate, almost Bachian counterpoint.
In the Opus 33 Quartets, Haydn changed the title of his dance movements from minuet to scherzo, but in fact, the second movement is closer to the old minuet style than to the fiery or impish scherzos Beethoven would unfurl. This dance has a split personality: its main section has a heavy, earthbound quality suggesting a rustic peasant dance while its middle trio section is all aristocratic airiness and grace.
Moving to B-flat Major, the Largo sostenuto third movement is a marvel of beauty and thematic concentration. The viola accompanied by the cello introduces the serene theme, graced with a trill. This will return three times: immediately as a duet for the two violins, later as a trio for the three upper instruments, and finally as a quartet. Almost as important as this melody is the oscillating sixteenth-note pattern introduced by the cello; it will permeate and integrate the movement and will be transformed into a countermelody for the first violin in the theme’s trio reprise. All this flowing lyricism is superbly balanced by transitional passages featuring short, sharp accents and syncopated rhythms.
This Quartet receives its nickname “Joke” from its effervescent rondo finale, which runs into a little trouble on its way to the finish line. Its merry and innocent theme is perfectly crafted for a Classical rondo finale, but perhaps too much innocence is a dangerous thing. Since giving away a joke’s punch line spoils the fun, you’ll have to wait to find out what Haydn has up his sleeve here.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2012
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 26
- I. Allegro energico
- II. Andante con moto
- III. Vivace assai
- IV. Andantino – Allegro con brio
Ferrucio Busoni was a man of contradictions: an Italian born in a small town near Florence who found his true musical home in Berlin; a virtuoso pianist whose magnum opus was a highly original opera Doktor Faustus, left unfinished at his death; a visionary who also revered the past. As pianist, composer, and teacher (Kurt Weill was one of his pupils), he became a completely cosmopolitan musician, at home in all the capitols of Europe as well as New York City. All his life, he studied and revered Bach and made powerful but now controversial arrangements of his music. Yet Busoni was also a champion of contemporary composers and as a progressive musical thinker a rival to Arnold Schoenberg. Like Schoenberg, Busoni believed that late-Romantic music needed a thorough housecleaning, but he didn’t suggest throwing all musical traditions out the window. Instead, he proposed what he called “Young Classicism”—“the intensive study of Bach and Mozart as the great exponents of melody and absolute music,” in Helmut Wirth’s paraphrase.
Busoni’s remarkable musical gifts manifested themselves early. By eight, he was giving public performances, and soon his musician parents moved the family to Vienna so he could receive better training. There the young prodigy met and impressed Brahms, who suggested he go to Leipzig to study with Carl Reinecke, a former pupil of Mendelssohn and Schumann. It was during this period in Leipzig that Busoni wrote his only two string quartets; he was just 23 when he produced his Second String Quartet in D Minor in 1889.
This is a work that incorporates much of what Busoni had learned from earlier composers, but at the same time shows a strongly individual creative personality. Given Busoni’s already established devotion to Bach, it is densely contrapuntal in its part writing; harmonically, it adopts the extreme chromaticism favored by the late-Romantics. It also employs the Romantic device of bringing back thematic material from earlier movements, in this case a memorably dramatic theme from the first movement.
The Allegro energico first movement opens decisively with three bold chords establishing the key of D minor. Then the cello quietly launches a stealthy, slightly ominous theme that is immediately developed. The viola and second violin share the presentation of the second theme—a vigorous idea with swirling eighth notes that will become more anguished as the movement progresses. After a return of the stealth theme, the first violin sings a third theme, which is actually a combination of the first theme’s sharply accented, fragmented notes and the second theme’s eighth-note swirls. In fact, all the themes here are closely related, growing organically from what has come before. Busoni shows great ingenuity with all this thematic material in his formal development section, which is almost over-rich in its counterpoint. But basically the entire movement is about the development process, not just this section. The movement wraps up with the three decisive opening chords.
The Andante con moto second movement in A Minor begins as a gentle rustic duet between the two violins over the oompah accompaniment of the cello. Scales chromatically creeping by half-steps slightly mar its harmonic innocence. Moving to the Major mode, the first violin sings a new, somewhat sentimental descending theme. A rapid, murmuring development section maintains the gentle mood until it is disturbed by a surprise reappearance of the first movement’s stealth theme in the cello. As the pastoral music tries to steady itself, the first movement’s wailing, twisting idea also attacks. After this, the pastoral music remains very disturbed and only recovers its serenity in the closing bars, now in A Major.
Back in D Minor, movement three is a spooky witches’ brew of a scherzo, and its brittle staccato theme bears a strong family resemblance to the first movement’s stealth theme. In utmost contrast, the trio section is a smooth and dreamy reverie.
The finale begins slowly and enigmatically before shifting to D Major and a lively, impish tune in the cello for the main Allegro con brio section, which is also marked “with humor.” The slow introduction’s enigmatic music twice reappears to disrupt the contrapuntal frivolity. But the impish music renews its strength and accelerates its tempo for a triumphantly playful conclusion.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2012
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2
- I. Allegro non troppo
- II. Andante moderato
- III. Quasi Minuetto, moderato
- IV. Finale: Allegro non assai
When asked why he was so slow to tackle the symphonic form, Johannes Brahms famously exclaimed, “You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you!” That fear of not being able to live-up to Beethoven’s legacy also inhibited his writing of string quartets. Brahms was forty-three in 1876 when he premiered his First Symphony; he was already forty in 1873 when he unveiled his first two string quartets in C Minor and A Minor. In the quartet genre, not only Beethoven but also Haydn and Mozart had set such a high standard that Brahms claimed he’d written and thrown- away twenty string quartets before he dared to release his two quartets of Opus 51. (A third quartet in B-flat Major followed in 1875.)
Brahms’ string quartets have never been among his most popular chamber works and are too seldom played in relationship to their quality. Though the A-Minor Quartet we’ll hear is more lyrical and immediately appealing than the C-Minor, they are both formidable works in terms of their technical and formal complexity. One could even say that Brahms was here expanding Haydn’s concept of thematic elaboration to derive most of the material of each movement from elements in its principal theme. The quartets are also very harmonically advanced, an aspect that particularly fascinated Arnold Schoenberg. Alongside all its beautiful melodic material, the A-Minor is filled with very dense contrapuntal writing, especially the use of canons; J.S. Bach is as much an influence here as Beethoven.
This Quartet was premiered on October 18, 1873 in Vienna by the Joachim Quartet, helmed by Joseph Joachim, Brahms’ life-long friend and the inspiration for his Violin and Double concertos. And the very beginning of the first movement reveals that the composer was mentally dedicating this music to that great violinist, for the second, third, and fourth notes of its principal theme are Joachim’s musical motto F-A-E, standing for “Frei aber einsam” (“free but lonely”). Also the gypsy finale, which is related in spirit to the Violin Concerto’s finale, recalls Joachim’s Hungarian birth and the years the two musicians as young men spent touring with Magyar gypsy repertoire. However, as this Quartet was being published, Brahms and Joachim were having one of their periodic spats, and so the dedication went to another friend Dr. Theodor Brillroth, a prominent surgeon and passionate amateur chamber-music player who often joined the composer on his trips to Italy.
Movement one: Over a triplet-rhythm accompaniment in the viola, the first violin sings the gloriously lyrical principal theme, with Joachim’s upward-arching F-A-E motto embedded within. Even those triplet patterns are related to this theme, and in fact, triplet rhythms will also be an important element in all four movements. A secondary idea of syncopated notes leaning into gently tapping eighth-note patterns is passed in counterpoint between the instruments and developed into a transition to the true second theme—a warmly sentimental Viennese melody sung in close duet between the two violins. A third theme, its rapid ascending notes derived from the tapping patterns, brings the exposition to a quiet but firm conclusion. This exposition is usually repeated.
Breaking free of the exposition’s reverie, the development vehemently tears apart the components of both the first and third themes as well as the triplet rhythms and recombines them in elaborate counterpoint. Subsiding gradually back into lyricism, the music flows seamlessly into the recapitulation and the return of the soaring F-A-E theme. An extended coda carries the movement to a passionate conclusion.
Though the second movement moves from A Minor to A Major, it is darker and more troubled music than the first. Low in its range, the violin presents a grave and lovely rocking theme, which is at first confined within a very restricted range before finally releasing upward. This is an expansive melody, singing on amid rich counterpoint for some three minutes. A violent contrast comes abruptly as the first violin and cello, playing in canon, attack a fierce idea of jagged leaps and sharp accents over frenzied tremolos in the middle instruments. This subsides into a passage of quiet yet profound sadness whose ravishing counterpoint and fevered chromaticism suggest Richard Strauss. The opening rocking melody returns and at the end the Straussian ascending music, too, for a very delicate and moving close.
The third movement is a fascinating Brahmsian interlude with two contrasting elements. It opens with a wistfully lovely minuet in A Minor and 3/4 time. Intermingled with this calm and graceful music is a quicksilver scherzo in A Major and 2/4 time; its fleet staccato notes generate intricate counterpoint between the instruments. A variant of the slower minuet alternates with this until the minuet finally returns in its original form to close the movement.
Though the finale’s vivacious gypsy dance theme seems to suggest a straightforward rondo like the Violin Concerto’s finale, here it is subjected to a much more elaborate treatment, returning in superb variants throughout a form that is more sonata than rondo. Though lyrical episodes provide moments of relief, Brahms continually emphasizes the vigor of his dance theme with clashing cross rhythms à la Beethoven. The closing coda is wonderfully calibrated: after a flirtation with A Major in eerie, soft chords, Brahms returns decisively to A Minor for a wildly virtuosic variant of the gypsy dance in a breakneck Più vivace tempo.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2012