To play alongside the Borromeo String Quartet is to risk seeming bland; violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim purvey musical fervor, extremes both fierce and intimate. Nevertheless, as a New England Conservatory ensemble in residence, the quartet sponsors Guest Artist Awards; the winners, NEC students both undergraduate and graduate, matched energies with the group Sunday night in Jordan Hall.
First, there was a Borromeo-only curtain-raiser: Mohammed Fairouz's "Chorale Fantasy,'' premiered by the quartet last year. Fairouz's music is thoughtfully cross-cultural; the "Chorale Fantasy'' explores that trope with restrained effect. Modernist tangles turned into medieval austerity, while contrapuntal lines starting in Romantic territory, reminiscent of, say, Max Reger, tipped over into more maqam-like inflections. Kitchen cantillated against a rhythmically insistent drone from the other three, which then transformed into a whirl of dance. But the overall tone was contemplative, searching, and optimistic. The gentle friction between notes and styles and eras resolved, at the end, into a glowing triad.
After that, it was time to showcase the award winners. Benjamin Britten's Phantasy Quartet (Op. 2) featured oboist Elizabeth O'Neil alongside Tong, Motobuchi, and Kim, and the variance was interesting. O'Neil seemed to regard phrases as risks to be managed with technique and control (which she did in accomplished fashion), while the strings were their usual gutsy selves, taking each phrase as a dare, pushing each musical affect to the utmost. O'Neil's steady lyricism over the strings' volubility brought out Britten's talent, even at the outset of his career, for disclosing the dangers lurking behind pastoral landscapes.
Pianist Emely Phelps, fleet, energetic, and bright-toned, was a better temperamental fit with the quartet, though the piece - Antonín Dvorák's Piano Quintet (Op. 81) - wasn't. Dvorák's long, repetitive structures combined with the players' get-big-fast intensity to produce busy but inert blocks. The end of the first movement was amped up nearly to the point of self-parody. But the last two movements, relying on charm and contrast rather than mass, had more crackle and spark.
For a cheerfully athletic performance of Mendelssohn's Octet (Op. 20), the quartet was joined by violinists Ari Isaacman-Beck and Rhiannon Banerdt, violist Wenting Kang, and cellist Gwen Krosnick. In choosing string players, the Borromeo opted for near-doppelgangers in demeanor and style: physically exuberant, at home on the antipodes of the dynamic range, enamored of musical edge and momentum. Thrill-seekers gravitate toward one another.