This week and last we’ve had back-to-back concerts by the two string quartets in residence at Yale — and there could hardly be a greater difference between them. The elder Brentano Quartet played a traditional program from the heart of the repertoire. Their newly arrived mentees, the young Argus Quartet out of Los Angeles, followed them a week later with a program of exclusively atonal and post-tonal music.
Brentano’s concert took place last Tuesday night in Sprague Hall, with Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin on first and second violin, Misha Amory on viola and Nina Lee on cello. Though the concert ran nearly two hours, it was well-controlled and enjoyable throughout. They opened with Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 50, No. 4, in F-sharp minor — a gallant introduction. The ensemble has a perfectly blended sound, which they showed off in the quartet’s thoroughly classical opening movements. The fourth-movement fugue lacked the preceding movements’ clarity, but the group’s sprightly energy more than carried them through.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 142, in F-sharp major followed after a tuning break. This late quartet is in three movements, Allegretto — Adagio — Allegretto, with the last two played attacca. Still, due to the similar tempos — as well as the departure from Haydn’s strict classical form — the piece sagged. Despite a general lack of narrative energy, there were moments of great beauty: Two duets in the Adagio particularly stood out.
Brentano returned after intermission visibly more relaxed. The remaining piece, Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 11, in C Major, returned us to more familiar territory following the first half’s unusual sojourn in F-sharp. From the very first bars of the Dvorak, a new resonance and warmth put the audience at ease. This paid off tremendously in the Adagio, whose rich harmonies were the highlight of the evening. A brisk scherzo and finale in a typically folksy Dvorak idiom ended the program jovially.
In all, the program favored intimacy over drama. The group played to its strengths: a well-blended sound, a seemingly perfect relationship between the violins and strong solo performances in the lyric passages.
A week later, this past Tuesday, the Argus Quartet made its debut as the fellowship quartet-in-residence. Jason Issokson and Clara Kim are on violin, Diana Wade on viola and Joann Whang MUS ’09 on cello. The Argus program seemed chosen to announce the group’s departure from convention. A typical string quartet concert would include one piece each from the classical, romantic and modern periods. Argus, though, opened with the Bartok String Quartet No. 4, from 1928. On most programs, this piece would be the modern extreme. For Argus it was the oldest. The 18th- and 19th-century heart of the repertoire was nowhere to be seen.
Despite the unconventional approach, Argus’ execution was admirable. Their Bartok both energized and excited. The highlight of the performance was a jittery fourth movement, analogous to the classical scherzo, which was played entirely on plucked strings.
The second half of the program included three pieces by living composers. The first of these, “Peculiar Strokes” by Andrew Norman, was a grab bag of party tricks for string instruments. Each movement in the suite featured a particular technique — skip, skim, rebound, scrape and so forth. There were plenty of weird noises, but also plenty of humor: Audience members’ laughter broke out at several points.
The remaining two works, “scratch cradle” by Thomas Kotcheff and “Visions and Miracles” by Yale composer Christopher Theofanidis MUS ’97, recalled the Bartok’s energy. However, the effects available to atonal music wore thin after an hour and a half, and it became very hard to get excited about yet another crescendo over ostinato bass.
Wade introduced the second half, and made clear that Argus intends to emphasize later-period and new music in their repertoire. As a group, they’re very easy to like, and it’s equally easy to hear their incredible technique. However, it would have been nice to hear them play one classical-era showpiece — perhaps a dance movement by Haydn — just to show off their technical capacity in a more familiar setting. In the context of this program, the intrusion of Haydn would have been both hilarious and reassuring.
At the same time, given that Argus aimed primarily to make an artistic statement in their debut, the second half’s slight tedium is forgivable. I expect that subsequent performances will exhibit more balanced programming, when there is less for the young group to prove. Altogether, though? An auspicious beginning. To have both an established traditional quartet in Brentano and a bold new quartet in Argus is a wonderful piece of luck.