Verdict: three stars

Brentano Quartet

Kilrenny Church, Fife

It feels a bit churlish to complain when a sound is too beautiful, too consistent, too polished. Classical musicians spend decades honing techniques to achieve exactly these qualities, then we turn around and demand something rough, uneven, unpredictable, plain ugly? Well, yes, sometimes.

Or rather, it's the music that makes the demands.

Benjamin Britten composed his third and last string quartet at the end of his life, some of it during his final troubled visit to Venice in 1975. There is beauty and evanescence in the piece, but also anger and pain.

Themes from his harrowing opera Death in Venice haunt the score. In a persuasive performance, the sorrow of the Passacaglia should be hard to bear. Mendelssohn's First Quartet, meanwhile, is all glowing bravado, penned by a 20-year-old whose mind was too agile and exploratory to rein anything in.

The Brentano Quartet, a venerable American ensemble currently resident at Yale University, makes a beautiful sound.

The ensemble playing is tasteful, judiciously balanced, well-schooled with all the correct allocations of loud and soft, legato and crisp, fiery and contemplative.

There were some very classy moments in this East Neuk Festival recital: the solemnly inquisitive pizzicatos in the last movement of the Britten, for example, or the carefully balanced lyricism in the Mendelssohn's middle movements, or even the bright, zippy energy whipped up in the Mendelssohn's finale.

The problem was that the same glossy approach applied to both works, and as a result the character of each was flattened out. The Brentano Britten was dignified but hardly hinted at desolation. The Brentano Mendelssohn was elegant and polite, but never properly feisty. It was all a lovely sound, but a little too much of a good thing.