Brentano Quartet, Serkin in bold program at Shriver Hall
As we get farther away from the atonal revolution of the early 20th century, it's harder to find composers who are totally dedicated to that cause. Those who have managed to stay true to the complexities of the 12-tone system devised by Schoenberg, avoiding any trace of neo-this or neo-that in their work, seem all the braver now. One such stalwart is Charles Wuorinen, whose thorny, brilliant Second Piano Quintet was performed during the Brentano String Quartet's remarkably bold program presented Sunday night by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.
There was even a bracing work by Schoenberg on the bill, too. In such company, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge sounded more way-out-there than ever. For that matter, Haydn's D minor Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3 (nicknamed "Fifths"), the tamest work on the concert, also came across as doubly bold, unconventional, forward-looking.
Wuorinen wrote his quintet for the Brentano players -- an ensemble exceptionally well-matched in tone, technique and temperament -- and the excellent pianist Peter Serkin. They gave the premiere last summer and collaborated on the work again here. The skittish first movement of the Second Piano Quintet is a study in musical pointillism, each note deftly dropped onto the aural canvas. The viola's dark song in the second movement weaves through the dissonant landscape compellingly. A scherzo of remarkable energy gives way to tremolos and night sounds that characterize the spacious finale, which, in turn, is surprised by ...
Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon, composed at the height of World War II, is a fascinating piece for reciter and piano quintet. Here, the composer's 12-tone technique reveals subtle shifts to allow hints of more traditional tonality, so that the final burst of E-flat -- a reference to Beethoven's Eroica -- seems a perfectly natural destination.
Interested in making a statement about the horror of Hitler, Schoenberg found an ideal vehicle in Byron's poetic tirade against the French emperor ("To think that God's fair world hath been/The footstool of a thing so mean"), and his intense music underscores each line tellingly, without resorting to anything blatantly descriptive. The Brentano members and Serkin once again offered superb playing, as Thomas Meglioranza recited the poetry with great flair.
The performance of the Haydn quartet at the start of the evening was beautifully detailed and full of spontaneity; the music danced. I heard the Brentano ensemble play the heck out of Beethoven's wild fugal exercise in New York a couple weeks ago. Sunday's performance proved to be just as taut and engrossing.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO OF BRENTANO QUARTET (AP); PHOITO OF PETER SERKIN COURTESY OF CM ARTISTS