At 100 minutes including an intermission, the running time of the Dec. 4 performance by the Brentano String Quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw at the Herbst Theatre was brief. Yet in the single work that occupied the second half of the program, Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 10, the artists embarked on a journey unmeasurable by any clock.
In this probing 1908 work, the composer covers a large swatch of musical and emotional terrain, from late Romantic expressiveness to fractured, proto-12-tone shards. He quotes a tender folk melody, “Ach, du lieber Augustin, alles ist hin” (Oh, my dear Augustine, everything's gone), and transmutes it through a nervously percussive Scherzo that has the feel of a wind-up toy that keeps running down only to feverishly restart itself. The singer, after holding her tongue for the first two movements, becomes the keen focus of the concluding two, in the composer’s settings of two contrastingly intense Stefan George poems.
The Brentanos gave the opening Allegro a taut but deeply expressive reading. The amplitude, of both the dynamics and interpretation, set the terms for what was to come. There were spirited outbursts from all four players that gradually cohered into a conversation of shared insights and sudden accords. They made it seem that a great deal was at stake.
The urgent mood persisted in the Scherzo, even through the movement’s wistfulness and impish oscillations. A nervously repeated note figure animated the proceedings, like a secret code passed furtively from one instrument to another and back again.
Upshaw, an esteemed singer of notable delicacy and power, tapped both qualities here. Her “Litany,” over the third movement’s instrumental theme and variations, took on the contours of a dramatic monologue that moved from spiritual exhaustion to a raw-boned determination. “Kill the longing, close the wound!” went the English translation. Upshaw, singing in German, relished the consonant-rich, mouth-filling language. The quartet tracked her faithfully, right up a stark turn on the last line and a plangent yet remorseless coda.
The piece closed with a haunting “Rapture,” a mysterious evocation of “air from another planet” and a land that “looks white and smooth like whey.” When Upshaw sang of losing herself in “tones, circling, weaving,” the quartet reeled along with her. Later on, a pointilist precision matched another turn in the poetry. All in all, it was a heady, heart-filling, exhilarating fusion of voice and the elegance, range, and fury of the Brentano at their best.
Not surprisingly, neither of the other two pieces on the program achieved such heights. Ottorino Respighi’s Il tramonto (The sunset) did offer the appeal of something unlikely to turn up on many bills. (Indeed, this pairing of a soprano and string quartet, presented by San Francisco Performances, was an inherently unusual and welcome one.)
After a showily declamatory figure by the quartet, the singer took over with a long stretch of text — the Percy Shelley “Sunset” poem translated into and sung in Italian. The setting featured some effectively demonstrative touches, a darkening texture here, a chromatic descent there. At one point cellist Nina Lee seemed to capture the voice of an old woman with eyes “black and lusterless and wan.” Moments later, an explosive chord marked a line about a tomb.
But this “Sunset” also felt sudsy and discursive at times, the long flow of vocal lines relegating the quartet to backdrop scene-setters. Upshaw marshaled her forces, dipping into a dank, low register, sending out defiant high notes, and shaping everything with care. All the same, the piece felt overly voluble.
The concert began with a scrupulous but oddly unpersuasive account of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 18 in A Major. With the exception of Lee, who was unassertive, the members played with precision and care. Violinist Mark Steinberg led the way, partnering with violinist Serena Canin and Misha Amory, whose warm and woodsy viola tone lent some color. But all the thoughtfully placed details didn’t add up to much more than the sum of their parts.
Perhaps the performers were all saving their best for last — a gripping Schoenberg Quartet No. 2 that won’t soon be forgotten.