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Brilliant technique highlights Brentano quartet concert

Brentano String Quartet

Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Michael Kanin, cello.

Works by Debussy, Kurtag, and Mozart.

Kresge Auditorium.

Oct. 22, 8 p.m.

By Craig Chang
Staff Reporter

The Brentano String Quartet is fortunate to possess brilliant technique and tight ensemble. Those qualities are important only because the group is eccentric to the point of scaring away the audience.

Take its choice of program. The players had the boldness to open with an austere account of Gyorgy Kurtag's String Quartet, Op. 28. This sort of music, through incompetent hands, tends to mistake itself for an extended tuning session. But the Brentano players instead brought to the piece an abstract palette of nuance and color. In fact, they played the sometimes erratic, ambiguous, and erudite music with utmost confidence.

The ensemble approached Mozart's String Quartet in D Major with this same boldness. Somehow, drama seeped from their interpretation. Especially buoyant was first violinist Mark Steinberg. Coupled with his insistence on being the flower of the group, the crystalline nuances of Mozart's writing, by the end of piece, emerged drenched in exaggeration and exuberance that just barely escaped euphoric ridiculousness.

The final movement of the seemingly tame piece took us on an altogether wild ride most ensembles wouldn't dare approach. And yet the sheer joyful inventiveness of the Brentano String Quartet's playing almost excused all these moments of questionable audacity.

The undeniable energy of the chamber group was their greatest asset during the Debussy Quartet. Obsessive and imaginative, the piece deserves players with both explosive energy and tact. Saturday night, the Brentano String Quartet satisfied only the former. They broke the silence of the intermission with pure verve - but at the cost of losing a firm grip on the first modal motto that reappears in various incarnations throughout the piece.

Expectedly, the players compensated during the second movement for any disappointment with breakneck tempos, thankfully held together by tight ensemble. They nearly became an Oriental gamelan as their pizzicato imitated the striking of wooden and metal chimes. Only the most confident of players could have pulled this off.

The Brentano Quartet proved their brand of eccentricity revolved around pushing music to the edge. Despite their ferocious energy, occasional moments of poor judgment derailed the music, as with the too liberal use of accelerando during the climax of the third movement of the Debussy Quartet.

The night's performance seemed to reveal the Brentano String Quartet's major weakness (and maybe their only one) - fear to let the music speak for itself. As eccentrics, they steered clear of traditional interpretations, as far away from triteness as possible. Such young players as those of this ensemble experiment with their musical individuality to a great extent, wringing the music for all its worth.

Undoubtedly, this is a talented group to be reckoned with. Still young, it remains a stick of dynamite, dangerous and exhilarating.