Brentano String Quartet Plays Beethoven Late String Quartet Op. 130 & Grosse Fuge Op. 133

Recently I had the pleasure of attending, here in New York City, a live early on rehearsal performance of the Beethoven Late String Quartet in B-flat Major Op. 130. (Sometimes referred to as String Quartet No. 13.) One of the members of the performance is a friend, Daniel Panner—a very fine violist, and the setting was intimate (no stage) with only about 15 people attending. It was delightful to be so close up without any amplification or microphones required, and to be able to meet and chat with the musicians right afterwards. No high-end audio system can compete with that.

Besides the marvelous natural sound of the string instruments (standard in a string quartet are two violins, one viola and one cello), of particular interest to me was learning about the history concerning the last movement (VI), and further learning that there was some humor, farce and a kind of child-like playfulness hidden within Op. 130. (I certainly had never before thought of Beethoven as anything less than a stern and serious fellow!) For example, the 3rd movement has, as its full name Andante con moto, ma non troppo–Poco scherzoso, and Poco scherzoso translates as ‘slightly joking’ in English. It certainly is a playful fun movement; one of my favorite of the six, and the 6th movement Finale: Allegro is filled with a child-like additional playfulness that is very uplifting.

Although what my local friend’s quartet played as the last movement was Finale: Allegro, which is the norm (but not always), it turns out that Beethoven originally had written what is known as Grosse Fuge, an elaborate, somewhat wild, lengthy and completely different last movement. At the time of its premiere, it was not well received and Beethoven was pressured by his publisher to change it, and remarkably he did so; hence the Finale: Allegro became the last movement, while Grosse Fuge became a separate piece altogether (Op. 133). Finale: Allegro was probably the last piece of music that Beethoven ever wrote; sadly he died shortly before it was to premier in 1827. As a side note, according to the Brentano String Quartet, when Beethoven heard that during the premier of Grosse Fuge it was not well received, he responded that the audience had been made up of ‘cattle and asses’.

Upon arriving back home after my friend’s rehearsal, I set out to acquire an audiophile quality reference version of Op. 130, not even knowing where to start my quest. But upon visiting my father several days later I found in his collection a CD of it by the Tokyo String Quartet recorded in 1992 (it was a 3 CD set). Although it was good, it did not have the intimacy, liveliness or recording quality that I was hoping for. So I dug further, along the way passing through some other examples that were not quite what I was looking for and then finally reaching out for advice. I even acquired (and greatly enjoyed) the classic 1961 version by The Budapest String Quartet, but it was so fast paced (for example 10 minutes for the first movement versus 14:32 for the Brentano version, discussed next) that I felt lost at times. That lead me ultimately to the topic of this review: Brentano String Quartet (2014), The Late String Quartets Op. 130 & Grosse Fuge Op. 133, AEON, AECD 1438. The members are Mark Steinberg and Serena

Canin (violin), Misha Amory (viola) and Nina Maria Lee (cello); their quartet was formed in 1992. ‘Brentano’ takes its name from the woman who scholars believe was the recipient of a letter Beethoven wrote addressed to "Immortal Beloved” (Beethoven’s only known romantic involvement, which ultimately failed).

In addition to the full set of 6 movements of Op.130 ending with Finale: Allegro, it also contains as its last piece the Grosse Fuge Op. 133. I ripped the CD and played it right away. Man was I struck! Not only was the recording quality stellar with its exquisite natural timbre of instruments, but the performance was intimate, energetic, confident, and displayed magnificent skill. This clearly was something very special I thought—I hit gold. When I expressed my impression to Panner, he said, ‘I think the Brentano is one of the most exciting, intelligent, vital quarters of this (or any) time. They are really at the very top, in my opinion.’ I could not agree more.

Coincidentally, I learned that in 2014 Brentano String Quartet became the new Quartet-in Residence at Yale School of Music at Yale University—replacing the Tokyo String Quartet. So my first attempt at acquiring a proper recording was not in vain; I had somehow come full circle.

The 5th movement of Op. 130, Cavatina. Adagio molto expressivo, is the most serious and emotionally pulls one into a sombre mood; complex and moody with hints of sadness and even death. Interestingly, Brentano Quartet were chosen to play that movement in New York City at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1997 at the memorial service for the famous scientist/astronomer Carl Sagan. Op. 130 was one of the pieces that Sagan had chosen to include on the Voyager Spacecraft as an example of one of the greatest achievements of mankind. I can only assume that this Brentano String Quartet CD would make him proud—let us hope Op. 130 has reached Sagan’s intended audience.