Borromeo String Quartet, Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet return in force

No one is going to argue that strings and piano bask in the most sublime works of intimate personality. But chamber music doesn't discriminate. Winds, brasses and percussion also figure prominently in the repertoire.

Local audiences this week heard two superb chamber ensembles from the string and wind worlds, both of which the Cleveland Chamber Music Society presented in recent seasons. No problem. The returns of the Borromeo String Quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet couldn't have been more welcome.

The superlative Borromeo, a 2007 recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, made a return appearance Tuesday to Fairmount Temple Auditorium in Beachwood to open the society's 58th season. The ensemble first performed here in 2004.

Two-thirds of Tuesday's program was traditional, with a detour for something relatively new: Works by Haydn and Beethoven provided Classical contrast to Pierre Jalvert's String Quartet (1995).

Jalvert's three-movement score probes a galaxy of string techniques in music of fierce and delicate inventiveness. The piece is a kaleidoscope of moods and effects, with a final movement whose gravely beautiful opening chords lead to tragic pleadings and "Dies Irae" outbursts. Glass rods tapped on strings add chilling textural color.

The Borromeo -- violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim -- ensured that the myriad lines and details could always be heard, however subtle or ferocious.

Haydn's String Quartet in D major, Op. 76, No. 5, was an ideal forum for the ensemble to show the elegant side of its personality. The musicians exulted in the music's warmth, lilt and fleet humor, playing with lean clarity and, in the heavenly slow movement, eloquence.

The concert reached the highest point when the Borromeo turned to Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130/133. The musicians didn't flinch from the obstacles. They imbued the five movements preceding the bizarre "Grosse Fugue" with enormous contrasts and pinpoint interplay. As shaped by the Borromeo, the fugue's jolting leaps and sudden stops worked their peculiar magic to stirring effect.

The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, appearing Wednesday at Trinity Cathedral as part of the Cleveland Museum of Art's Viva! & Gala Around Town series, champions the ultra-smooth style of its great orchestra. Tonal beauty, seamless interplay and expressive subtlety are crucial aspects of the quintet's character.

The group didn't touch a note of German music Wednesday, concentrating instead on Gallic fare, with a side trip to America for Samuel Barber's "Summer Music." They brought delicious lightness to Jacques Ibert's "Trois pieces breve" and reveled in the bucolic and rousing activity in Darius Milhaud's "La cheminee du Roi Rene."

The drama, sweetness and nimble dancing in Paul Taffanel's Quintet in G minor received scrupulous delineation, while Jean Francaix's Quintet for Winds was an explosion of rambunctious and swirling activity.

Barber's idyllic paean to summer might have unfolded with more space, but the Berliners shaped it with utmost care. And they won hearts by offering a witty encore of American folk tunes tweaked -- why not? -- by a Polish composer.
Donald Rosenberg, Cleveland Plain Dealer
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