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PERFORMING ARTS

Brentano String Quartet

Pianists Katherine Jacobson and Leon Fleisher, who played the two-piano Mozart Concerto No. 7 with the Baltimore Symphony.
Pianists Katherine Jacobson and Leon Fleisher, who played the two-piano Mozart Concerto No. 7 with the Baltimore Symphony. (Icm Artists)

The Brentano String Quartet clearly has an affinity for Beethoven. Not only does the group take its name from Antonie Brentano (thought to be the composer's mysterious "Immortal Beloved"), it's also made a name for itself with penetrating, widely praised performances of the late quartets. But the Brentano is equally committed to the works of contemporary composers, and at the Kreeger Museum on Saturday night, the ensemble brought the two together in a program that echoed dramatically across the centuries.

Beethoven's last string quartets are monumental works, regarded by many musicians as the greatest of the form. Deeply inspired by the A Minor Quartet, Op. 132, the Argentine composer Mario Davidovsky used its slow movement as a starting point for his own String Quartet No. 5, from 1988. It's a dramatic, highly compressed work that seethes with tension, seesawing between angular explosions and radiant serenity. And though the connections with Beethoven seemed elusively subtle, it proved to be a fascinating work, and the musicians gave it a robust and deeply involved performance.

Even so, the Davidovsky (and the Mozart Quartet in B-flat, K. 589, which opened the program) paled beside Beethoven's own magnificent String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127. It's perhaps the most lyrical of the late quartets, but it's a dark, searching lyricism with confounding depths. The Brentano turned in an intense and beautifully calibrated reading that balanced the work's slow-melting beauties and its sharp wit; a memorable performance of one of the great works in the repertoire.

-- Stephen Brookes

Cantate Chamber Singers: 'The Creation'

Conductor Gisele Becker and her Cantate Chamber Singers delivered a performance of Haydn's exuberant oratorio "The Creation" on Saturday evening at Westmoreland Church in Bethesda. With a choir of 35 and orchestra of 30 -- just the right size for the warmly immediate acoustics of the church -- Becker shaped introspective moments with sensitivity and kept faster movements surging forward at a smacking pace.

The woodwinds -- rightly brought forward in the orchestral balance -- were terrific in the composer's playfully imitative writing. (A mention of birds has the flutes twittering away, and a flatulent contrabassoon accompanies the "heavy beasts.") In this ensemble of modern instruments -- playing in informed period style -- only the violins seemed to have intermittent trouble keeping pitch and attacks spot-on while reducing vibrato.

The soloists were a strong trio, with sweet-voiced young tenor Zach Borichevsky clearly a talent to keep an ear on, and bass Steven Combs a continual source of pleasure with his velvety timbre and understatedly eloquent phrasing. Amanda Balestrieri's soprano sounded a touch more blanched and edgily bright on Saturday than it has in years past, but her high notes were thrilling.

Likewise, the sopranos in the Cantate Singers offered less ingratiating tone than the rest of the chorus. But they matched the other sections in confidence, agility and cleanly articulated treatment of the text, and this modestly scaled ensemble made a splendid sound together.

-- Joe Banno

Thomas Circle Singers

The Thomas Circle Singers have cultivated the pianissimo to an art form all its own. With a program at the National City Christian Church on Saturday that devoted its first half to the likes of Duruflé, Messiaen and Fauré, and the second to John Rutter's 1985 Requiem, they had themselves a feast of quiet and contemplative scores on which to lavish their expertise. Of course, the acoustics of the sanctuary's vast space helped a bit, softening already gentle edges, but it also laid a cloud of indistinction over diction that only occasionally was able to emerge as clear and precise.

Conductor James Kreger has his 32-person ensemble singing weightlessly and with agility. Soft singing is much more difficult to sustain than loud, but pitch never wavered and long phrases emerged sounding fresh and easy. The misty French sonorities established in the four opening motets by Duruflé served everything else on the program as well; even the Rutter, with its occasional hints of modal English folk melody, needed this French flavor to project its message of peace.

But an hour and a half of this warm, comfortable fuzziness could have used a occasional wake-up jolt, maybe in the form of some of Poulenc's rhythmic energy -- something to get the blood flowing again. This was a problem with programming, not with performance.

A small, supportive instrumental group accompanied the Rutter. Organist Julie Vidric Evans gave a nice account of Messiaen's "Dieu Parmi Nous," and there was some fine work by sopranos Elizabeth Dutton and Kristine Johnson.

-- Joan Reinthaler


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