The Borromeo String Quartet has, once again, opened the Mount Desert Festival of Chamber Music with a concert of stunning intensity and musical diversity.
The Borromeo, comprised of Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong,Violins, Mai Motobuchi, Viola and Yeesum Kim, Cello, informally referred to this concert as "A Beethoven Sandwich," but that falls far short of describing the elegant musical journey--very early Beethoven, Shostakovich and later Beethoven--they provided for their audience.
Published in 1795 as Opus 1, No. 3, The Piano Trio in C minor is one of the Trios that launched Beethoven's long and occasionally shaggy relationship with publishing. The Trio contained many elements that separated Beethoven from his musical contemporaries and left no doubt that his gifts were visionary.
C Minor is thought of as a serious key, but I find the opening of this trio joyous and full of promise. The young Beethoven knew how to evoke elegance without pomposity, as well as seriousness without invoking bathos. These characteristics are well suited to the Borromeo and Todd Crow, pianist and musical director of the festival. The playing throughout the Trio was crisp, and Todd Crow's playing is deceptively cool, like a bright light in the distance, but his virtuosity allowed the piano to dominate and retreat, and dominate again with perfectly nuanced effect through all the movements. The last movement, Finale: Prestissimo, is a bit of a joyride, churning itself into a storm that several centuries have not diminished. Just as it feels that the turbulence will surely burst our hearts, Beethoven ebbs, calms, soothes and leaves us bathed in afterglow.
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 7 in F# minor, Op. 108 was a salty, tangy contrast to the sweet in Beethoven.
Called "life affirming" by the composer, this piece is an unrelenting exploration of grief and healing, written after the death of Shostakovich first wife.
The Borromeo is a quartet that can muster objectivity in the heat of passion. Their precise playing can have sharp edges, and in this piece that precision creates a safety zone, a means of approaching the danger inherent in these passions without becoming overwhelmed. Dark lines of the violins and viola are answered by a darker cello. Fury is answered with fury, and hope with hope. The Borromeo has a nearly uncanny ability to navigate these rough waters. Like the Beethoven, the piece spends itself, satisfied. Shostakovich allows a quiet pizzicato to settle into an almost blissful end.
The last work of the evening, Beethoven's String Quartet in E minor Op. 59, No. 2, shows us a Beethoven, whose innovations were cementing into a secure and determined style; the four movements traverse the universe of emotion on a higher plane than the Trio; the heart no longer has any secrets.
After the quirky, jumpy first movement (Allegro) the Borromeo had the opportunity to demonstrate their virtuosic precision in the sustained phrases of the 2nd movement (Molto Adagio). Here, the emotive power comes not from melding sound, but by linking--creating a vanguard. This work does not have the sweetness that effuses the Trio, but it does have tenderness. Cellist Yeesum Kim holds the spare cello lines at the perfect tension to absorb the vibrant violins without overwhelming them. Languid qualities give way to soaring, spiraling, and once again, tumultuous passages. The final movement (Finale: Presto) is not only presto, but also frenetic. The Borromeo gave Beethoven's passions free reign and gave those of us lucky enough to be there a night to remember.