As the first winner of the Cleveland Quartet Endowment Fund Award, the Brentano Quartet made its debut on this series in December 1997, dazzling us with their Mendelssohn Op. 44 No. 2 and only slightly less commanding in Haydn's Op. 71 No. 1.
These composers are obviously close to the Brentano musicians' hearts, because Tuesday their first return concert was bracketed by Haydn's Op. 64 No. 4 and Mendelssohn's Op. 44 No. 3.
In the nine intervening years, the ensemble has banked rave upon rave and is now ranked with the very best of the younger generation of quartets. Tuesday's performances would seem to substantiate that appraisal.
In the Haydn, the musicians played with the kind of superbly centered balance in which the instruments seemed to be speaking to and engaging each other, even when the music was not especially conversational. Of special note was the superbly eloquent soliloquy by first violinist Mark Steinberg in the slow movement.
This was animated, earthy Haydn, not your polite drawing room variety, played with a lot of internal vitality and plasticity of line. If it occasionally suggested the players were looking forward to Beethoven, it was a risk worth taking and did not violate the spirit of the composer.
In the Mendelssohn quartet, the artists' lyric line was always alive, with seamless ensemble transitions and voice leading exquisitely passed back and forth. As is so often the case with Mendelssohn, the Scherzo emerged as the work's focal center and remains its most memorable moment for the lightness, grace, spirit and wit the artists drew from its pages. Despite the Brentano's dedication and musicianship, there were moments of charm, intrigue and inventiveness, but often it seemed more glib than substantive.
The crown of this concert was Bartok's Quartet No. 2. The first movement was tense and taut, forced and pressing, intensely searching for something, the insistently repeated, slashing chord that became the keystone of the movement.
In the second movement's primitive frenzy, the Brentano played with such overflowing energy and extraordinary ensemble precision that it seemed as if the four instruments were guided by a single consciousness. Both technique and musicianship were of the very highest order.
This carried through into the pleading, groping Lento finale, and the work as an entity emerged with equally high marks for musical expressiveness and theatricality, in the very best sense of that word.
Tuesday night in Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall as part of Buffalo Chamber Music Society's season.