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March 10, 2009

Brentano Quartet, Serkin in bold program at Shriver Hall

Brentano String Quartet

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 ...

Peter Serkina return of the aggressive scherzo and a coda that compresses all the tension from the five instruments into an eerily calm resolution. The score received a performance of startling technical poise and expressive drama. The string players dug deeply, confidently into the material; Serkin articulated the dots and dashes of the keyboard part with his usual clarity.

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:34 PM | | Comments (1)


The most exciting review by Mr. Smith I have read!

Gee, I'm not entirely sure how to take that, but thanks.TIM,/i>

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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