Brentano Quartet, Diaz wrap year in style for Friends of Chamber Music

By Lawrence Budmen

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The Brentano String Quartet performed Tuesday night in Coral Gables for Friends of Chamber Music. Photo: Christian Steiner

On Tuesday night Coral Gables Congregational Church was bedecked with Christmas trees and decorations in the spirit of the season. Friends of Chamber Music presented the Brentano String Quartet in the church’s sanctuary and the group’s first-rate performances of works by Mendelssohn and Benjamin Britten were  wonderful musical gifts for any holiday season.

Early and late Mendelssohn bookended the program. The Quartet No. 1 in E-flat Major is the work of a 20-year-old composer with a gift for inspired melody. The Brentano foursome captured the opening movement’s stormy and dramatic aura, with intense climaxes. Even when playing at peak voltage, the ensemble was smoothly blended, the string tone never strident.

Finely shaded dynamic nuances and crisp articulation propelled the winding melody of the second movement and the Canzonetta gave violinist Mark Steinberg, a seasoned leader, a chance to shine. His glowing sonority and agility were impressive in the exposed solo passages. Serena Canin’s mellow violin sound mixed beautifully with Steinberg’s forward thrust in the final Molto Allegro, the players maintaining tension up to the final chords.

The Quintet in B-flat Major is mature Mendelssohn, the fount of melody now fused with greater drama. The players were joined by violist Roberto Diaz whose annual visits to Friends of Chamber Music have become highlights of the season. The former first chair viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra and current president of the Curtis Institute, Diaz is a superb ensemble player who blends seamlessly with his fellow artists.

The group raced into the score’s passionate opening. Diaz and Misha Amory’s viola sonority emerged big and resonant. The players built the movement’s coda into a sheer crescendo of ensemble power.

Lightness and corporate precision characterized the graceful melody of the scherzando. The darker mood of the Adagio suggests Beethoven and the players gave the music space and expressive weight. More songful interludes were subtly etched, the mood swings dramatic. There was plenty of vigor in the lithe finale, capping a performance that perfectly balanced technical brilliance with expressive depth.

Britten’s Quartet No. 3 was written in 1975, a year before the composer’s death. The work recalls the late quartets of Shostakovich, and this deeply moving score stands as Britten’s last musical testament. Although incorporating some thematic material from Britten’s cantata Phaedra and the opera Death in Venice, the quartet’s symmetry and bleak darkness register with overwhelming emotion and pathos.

The Brentano ‘s performance was outstanding in every respect. From the opening duet of violin and viola, there was tense agitation in the first movement, with the duets for two violins turning eerie. Steinberg played the long solo of the third movement as one soaring paragraph without a break in the musical line. In the  brusque Burlesque, Steinberg and Canin assayed the writing in the violins’ highest register at rapid pace without any waver in intonation.

Britten’s final Recitative and Passacaglia is an extraordinary piece of writing and marked the performance’s high point. Nina Lee’s warm, transparent cello sound gleamed in the initial ruminative thread of melody. After the music turns increasingly angular, the score concludes with a repetitive short motif, gradually dying away into silence. The players’ intense and concentrated performance gave Britten’s chamber music swan song eloquence and patrician authority.

The Friends of Chamber Music season continues 8 p.m. January 15, 2016 at Florida International University’s Wertheim Concert Hall with Stephen Hough playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5  (“Emperor”) and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with James Judd conducting the FIU Symphony Orchestra.

Roberto Diaz plays Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas 8 p.m. May 7 and 2 p.m. May 8, 2016 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

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Wed Dec 16, 2015
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