The Boston-based Borromeo String Quartet are a fearless ensemble who appear to savour every sonic and and atmospheric challenge.
On their new disc, they take up a 20th-century classic, Bartók’s String Quartet No 4, and two striking recent works requiring similarly scrupulous attention to expressive extremity.
In a curious and welcome departure, the recording contains two performances of Gunther Schuller’s String Quartet No 4 – one in concert and the next captured in the studio. The juxtaposition lets the listener go beneath the surface of Schuller’s invigorating and moody writing, with its homages to Mozart and Beethoven, and plunge into a brooding and vehement sound world redolent of Bartók (minus the folk inspiration). Both performances are gripping, but the slightly more spacious studio version heightens Schuller’s masterful musical suspense.
The Borromeo players achieve the special balancing act of patience and ferocity in Mohammed Fairouz’s Lamentation and Satire, an intensely felt score in which the instruments engage in compelling duos, a fugue of doleful urgency and a farewell utterly bereft of hope.
The disc begins with the Bartók, a piece that remains jolting almost 85 years after its creation. The music requires the utmost concentration if the intricate rhythmic figures and eerie effects are to seize the ears. The Borromeo do so through painstaking adherence to dynamics, accents, texture, syncopations over the bar and telepathic interplay.
As played by this brilliant ensemble, the Bartók is an exhilarating expedition that sets the scene for the bold journeys to come in the Schuller and Fairouz works.