Above: soprano Dawn Upshaw, photo by Brooke Irish
~ Author: Scoresby
Sunday December 3rd, 2017 - "Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten" ('I feel the air of another planet...') sings the soprano in relief above the haunting melody of the string quartet. That relief comes from Schoenberg finally breaking away from the constraints of tonality in the last movement from his String Quartet No. 2 in F minor, Op. 10. It was to be his last tonal piece for a good many years, his very next composition being the radical 3 Pieces for Piano, Op. 11. From a historical perspective, this moment is monumental - ushering in a new era. While not as well known as other radical pieces, this one was instrumental in the Expressionist movement.
The entire music of the quartet is based around the opening lines of the first movement. Schoenberg pushes and pulls at tonal bounds through the first three movements - barely keeping within its constraints. You can hear this anxiety and density in the music, but it is in the last movement where tonality finally breaks there is an ethereal sense of relief before the music becomes more grounded again. The quartet builds on an motif that feels keeps blooming and pushing upwards until the soprano finally sings that shimmering line (here I've started the video at that moment). Whether Schoenberg knew it or not when he composed this piece that wild tension makes one feel like being on the edge of history in every phrase. Finally, as a relief the quartet ends the piece with an F major chord, but it is only a symbolic return.
Above: The Brentano String Quartet, photo by Christian Steiner
While I've loved this piece for many years, it is a rarity to hear it in performance. Thus it was a special treat to hear the Brentano Quartet and Dawn Upshaw perform it this past Sunday at the 92nd Street Y while Oberon was hearing Erwartung at the MET Museum.They had a taught crystalline sound, every phrase was ringing with the exciting energy of the music.
Ms. Upshaw sounded lovely in the last two movements. While perhaps not having the voice she once had, her artistry and phrasing is unparalleled. She was able to lift the music into the "air of another planet" well with her gentle phrasing some places and her wild attacks in others. The Brentanos took a structured approach to the first movement, managing to purse through the dense score with ease - it is difficult to have such clarity with that score. During the fierce second movement with its shrieks and cries, the quartet embraced the ferocity. It is the eerie last movement though that always gives me shivers when listening. You couldn't ask for a better guides to the music.
While the rest of the concert was thoroughly enjoyable. programmed interestingly, and well performed (Mozart's Dissonance Quartet, Respighi's Il Tramonto, and Schubert's Five Minuets interspersed with Webern's Six Bagatelles), it was this thrilling ending to a gloomy day that will be in my memory for a long time.