For its twenty-fifth anniversary season, the fabulous Borromeo String Quartet was feted by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where they are ensemble-in-residence, with a summer series including a lecture and three concerts. All three performances were sold-out, which is not surprising given that the repertoire the quartet chose was among the best the quartet literature has to offer (Beethoven, Schubert, and Bartok). Then, there is the sad reality that there are so few first-rate chamber music concerts in the Boston area over the summer. Finally, the Borromeo at 25 has become rock stars of the booming quartet-in-residence movement (they have several residencies, including during the past 22 years at the New England Conservatory, where they give free concerts in Jordan Hall). I was able to hear the first (July 29) and third (August 2) performances, and no other concerts I’ve heard this summer can come close to the thrill I experienced hearing this quartet (violinist Nicholas Kitchen, violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim).
The first concert featured works of Bartok and Beethoven. The Borromeo has well-earned reputation for memorably dramatic performances of Bartók. In 2014 at Jordan Hall the foursome played all six Bartók quartets in one evening, and they have been reprising this exhausting feat regularly to enormous acclaim. So it was to be expected that the group’s version of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 would be superb — suffused with propulsive energy, bite, and passion from beginning to end. (On December 20 of this year the Borromeo will play all six Bartók quartets in Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.) After a heart-stopping Allegro, the second movement (Adagio molto) came off as particularly eerie, a stirring example of Bartok’s “night music” style — an imitation of the various sounds of nature that includes chilling dissonances and poignant melodies. Nicholas Kitchen played the beautiful violin melodies with great sensitivity. The third movement is in time signatures typical of Bulgarian folk music: nine quavers in each bar in uneven groups of 4+2+3 for the main scherzo, and ten quavers in groups of 3+2+2+3 in the trio. The fourth movement (Andante) is reminiscent of the second movement, but with pizzicatos instead of trills. Cellist Yeesun Kim was very impressive in the fourth movement, full of cello glissandos; she is unquestionably one of the reasons for the Borromeo’s greatness. The fifth movement began with frightening urgency, like a house on fire. Hearing it live — especially in Calderwood Hall’s first floor — added to the excitement.
After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with Beethoven’s beloved 1825 String Quartet, No. 15, Op. 132 (“Heiliger Dankgesang”), best known for its monumental middle movement. It’s not very often that a critic’s eyes are clouded by tears while she’s taking notes during a performance, but the Borromeo’s luminous rendition of “Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode: Molto adagio — Andante (Feeling New Strength)” was shatteringly beautiful — full of spiritual peace and gratitude that culminated in an almost overpowering joy.
There are several theories circulating about the source of the hymns and mode used in the solemn and ethereal “Heiliger Dankgesang.” In his Beethoven biography, Jan Swafford explains that Gioseffo Zarlino, a 16th-century theorist of whom Beethoven knew, believed that “the Lydian mode is a remedy for fatigue of the soul, and similarly, for that of the body.” Most, if not all, studies of the composer remark on the Lydian mode’s strong association with healing and recovery. Some commentators have remarked on how the minor to major, dark to light progression in the quartet echoes that of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. I agree with Basil Lam’s perspective (quoted in the program notes): “…no other composition in all Beethoven’s works shows the unintegrated contrasts of this quartet. Once he became possessed of the “Heliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanks),” no solution of the formal problem was available other than to surround it with sound images united only by their total diversity. The Adagio, then, is not only the central element in the five-movement structure of the Quartet, but is also its expressive heart. The movement’s form alternates varied versions of a hymnal theme of otherworldly stillness based on the ancient church modes with a more rhythmically dynamic strain marked “Neue Kraft fühlend” (“feeling new strength”), a technique also used in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies.”
What struck me during both concerts was the Borromeo’s remarkable ensemble work, stunning virtuosity, the gorgeous sound of cellist Yeesun Kim, the exquisite technical control with its hairpin turns of mood and dynamics, and the extraordinary playing of first violinist Kitchen, whose musical curiosity continually gleans new insights from composers’ manuscripts, scores that he — and the three other strings — refer to on his laptop during concerts.
On August 2, the Borromeo gave a sensational performance of Franz Schubert’s tempestuous “Death and the Maiden,” the quartet referred to in Ariel Dorfman’s eponymous play (1990) and movie (with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley in 1994). The quartet takes its name from Schubert’s 1817 lied “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” D 531, a setting of a poem of the same name by German Romantic writer Matthias Claudius. The theme of the song, which forms the basis of the haunting second movement of the quartet, is a death knell alluding to the terror and comfort of death. Schubert wrote the D minor quartet in March 1824, shortly after completing the A minor “Rosamund” quartet. It is entirely in the minor mode, something true of no other Schubert quartet. In fact it is true of none of his piano sonatas, trios, quintets, symphonies or the Octet. Moreover, the key of D minor was associated in the musical language of the day with tragedy, turmoil, and struggle, as in Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K. 466, his D minor String Quartet, K. 421, Don Giovanni and the great Requiem Mass, as well as with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, “The Tempest.” Schubert was well acquainted with these works, so it is significant that this quartet is his only composition in that key.
Claudius’ text recounts an old European myth, where a sovereign (in this case, Death) demands a pre-nuptial night with a bride-to-be. If she declines, Death will take her betrothed on their wedding day. The Maiden sings: “Leave me, terrible specter, I am so young, go away and let me be”. To which Death replies: “Give me your hand, beautiful and sweet creature, I am your friend, and have not come to punish you. Have courage! You will sleep sweetly in my arms.’”
The Borromeo quartet performed this quartet thrillingly, From the first note to the last, I was held spellbound by the impassioned playing of Kitchen, Mai Motobuchi’s strong performance on viola, which sensitively projected the music’s inner lines, and cellist Kim’s amazing cello playing in the second movement, which seemed to make time stop. I heard things in this performance I had never heard before, although I’ve known and loved this piece my whole life.
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13 (1825) was written one year after Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet. It’s difficult to discuss the first five movements of Opus 130 given that so much of the excitement and controversy about the quartet reside in its last movements. But here are a few thoughts (one can never hear or write about the late quartets too often). At two minutes, the second movement (“Presto”) is the shortest of all the scherzi in Beethoven’s quartets. Here it was executed with aplomb. Next comes one of my favorite movements in all of his quartets, Andante con moto, ma non troppo, which, like every movement that afternoon, was given a thoughtful, beautifully expressive interpretation. The Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo featured gorgeous, intense work by Kitchen.
The players chose to conclude the concert with the notoriously difficult 741-bar Grosse Fuge, and the result was thrilling. This behemoth movement, often described as a multi-movement work in 10 sections, is the largest and most radical of Beethoven’s fugal finales. Initial audiences of the time were upset, to say the least, and players deemed it ridiculously difficult. Beethoven wrote a lighter, less dissonant finale, which pleased his publisher, his audiences, and musicians, but it makes the quartet a decidedly different experience. The Grosse Fuge was separated from its birth environment and given its own opus number, 133. It remains an enormously challenging, even avant-garde composition. A musician-friend of mine remarked that if you play it badly (easy to do!), it’s ugly. If you play it well, it’s also ugly.
Beethoven biographer Swafford describes the Grosse Fuge as a fugue like no other:
“It is the one movement in all the late music (of Beethoven) that in the next two centuries never lost any of its reputation for estrangement. This music’s eternally avant-garde…. It turned out to be the fugue to end all fugues; call it Beethoven’s answer to Bach’s giant Art of the Fugue boiled down to a single movement.”
Thanks to the Gardner’s Music Curator Scott Nickrenz for this sublime Borromeo celebration. It made my summer. And a plea for more concerts during the hot weather months.