Classical: A skill to dazzle

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The Independent Culture
THE BRENTANO String Quartet will be Quartet-in-Residence at the Wigmore Hall next year. From the coming autumn they will also be in residence at Princeton University after similar appointments at the Lincoln Center and New York University. Their appearance at the Wigmore last weekend certainly confirmed the strong impression they made with their first concert there two years ago. If you didn't know they were American you might have guessed it, from their technical brilliance and strong attack. Yet on Saturday they chose to begin with four of Purcell's Fantasias, not exactly music to dazzle, but very welcome outside its usual Early Music context. And they played beautifully, with no vibrato but a lot of dynamic flux. All four members - two men, two women - swayed about a good deal, making these pieces as keen and vivid as could be, yet without imposing any anachronistic romanticism. Each played like a soloist, yet within an impeccable and well-balanced ensemble.

Beethoven is as tough a test of a quartet's strengths and weaknesses as any composer. The right spirit is often conveyed with excruciating tuning, wailing vibrato and rough edges. In the E minor Razumovsky, Op 59 No 2, the Brentano passed the intonation test with flying colours, and if the first violinist's tone was slightly edgy, anyone who remembered the old Hungarian Quartet, virtually unsurpassed in this music, would have recognised a good precedent. The Brentano's fortissimi were positively orchestral, their pianissimi spectacularly distant and secretive. The Allegretto third movement dizzied by with controlled clan.

To choose the Third Quartet of Nicholas Maw as the centre-piece of the evening was neat thinking: here was an American quartet about-to-be resident in London playing a fairly recent work (Maw wrote the quartet in 1994) by an Englishman living in the United States. It's an interesting, very solidly written piece in five distinct movements which lead into each other without breaks. The first is lyrical - recognisably English in its swaying melodic lines woven gracefully together, though the music has forceful moments too. The second movement is declamatory and punchy, featuring solo cadenzas with lots of double notes while the other players freeze. Then comes a fugitive scherzo, nocturnal and ghostly, with all the instruments muted. A sort of stamping dance follows - inevitably, it recalls Bartok - and the final movement is a passacaglia, threaded on a most unusual "ground" constructed mostly in pairs of notes separated by rests, which give it an elusive and haunting character, this travels, transposed, round all the instruments, and although the surrounding counterpoint is not particularly attractive, the skill of the thing is impressive. So was the performance.