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String quartet shows Bass crowd it’s ready for Cliburn

Posted 5:20pm on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012

FORT WORTH — You might call it a warm-up for the 2013 Cliburn Competition — even though there was no piano in sight.

It was a Cliburn Concerts program by the Brentano String Quartet, which will see a lot of action onstage at Bass Hall in the spring when it serves as the chamber-music ensemble for the Cliburn semifinals.

Judging by the concert Tuesday night at the Bass, they quartet's players willl be congenial partners for the young contestants. They’re youngish themselves, and they’re polished professionals, precise, tight-knit as a group and quite versatile.

The members of the group are violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee. They may be unique in naming their quartet for the sweetheart of a great composer. The "Brentano" is for Antonie Brentano, widely believed to be the “immortal beloved” of Beethoven.

Their program began with what was undoubtedly a rare find for most members of the audience: four fantasias by Henry Purcell. This 17th-century British genius composed a group of brief pieces for four viols that are lovely, melodic and gentle. The first one on Tuesday’s program was particularly beautiful and a little melancholy. The remainder were quite pleasant and somehow gave the sense of being younger than their 300-plus years. With a nod to olden practices, the Brentano four played them without vibrato.

In an abrupt change of styles, the quartet played Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4, which is far from a gentle piece. It’s thorny harmonically, with spiky melodies and a high level of energy except for a slower-paced center movement (of five). Cellist Lee was quite impressive here. The overall pungency may have had an unintended effect: There was some thinning of the audience after the intermission that followed.

A brief Haydn string quartet in D minor was a joyous high point for the concert. It was graceful, mostly calm (especially in contrast with the Bartok), with some typical Haydn jauntiness and even more typical wit (in the final movement).

Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 was also mellow, if a little more substantial in length and a sense of musical weight. The Brentano four gave it a glowing performance highlighted by one of Brahms’ most gracious themes in the third movement.

Considering the group’s cohesion and ability to shift styles, it should produce plenty of memorable moments in the next Cliburn.

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