One of the best parlor games in the city right now is connecting the dots among the various string quartets that come through under the aegis of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Not long ago, the Juilliard Quartet spent a heavy evening with late Beethoven at the Independence Seaport Museum, sounding pleasantly old-world and in need of renovation - depending on the moment.
The Brentano Quartet's Tuesday night concert at the Perelman Theater was the seventh string quartet appearance in the society's season lineup (10 quartets to go). They were more polished than the Juilliard, less revelatory than the Modigliani or Takács. Does it matter? Only if you, like me, consider relating to a string quartet's personality just slightly less critical than choice of spouse.
Were the Brentano sitting across from you at dinner, you might have to lean in to hear the conversation. First violinist Mark Steinberg is a gorgeous player, but his sound is small and finely wrought. In Haydn's String Quartet in E flat major (Op. 33, No. 2), "Joke," he topped an elegant stacking of voices. The jokes are welcome and numerous, but it was the way the quartet ended the "Largo e sostenuto" that impressed most. Consciousness didn't so much end as mysteriously evaporate.
Anthony McGill, the young Curtis Institute of Music graduate who is now a principal clarinetist in the Met Orchestra, was a wise match for the Brentano. His trademark refinement was key to the serenity of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A major (K. 581), and especially so in the quiet stirrings of the third movement.
Violist Misha Amory and second violinist Serena Canin emerged as the strong voices in Brahms' String Quartet in A minor (Op. 51, No. 2). Slightly introverted and unfailingly polite, the Brentano players (Nina Lee is cellist) focused always on fitting in. Ideal? Maybe not. This is the kind of music that can sustain a more vividly imagined point of view. But it was a valid argument, and an altogether pleasant one - especially when you know that next week or next month, the conversation continues with another personality ready to confront you from across the footlights.