A sense of collective journey builds when a string quartet takes on an epic cycle such as the 15 string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. This is of course one of the two great string quartet cycles of the 20th century, the other being the quartets of Bartok.
With Shostakovich, these are the astonishing documents of a creative life that in retrospect seems, paradoxically, both archetypal and utterly sui generis. For all its deep connection to the composer's inner life, the music is filled with truths that transcend their time and place.
On Sunday afternoon, the Borromeo Quartet performed the penultimate program in its Shostakovich cycle. Having spaced out the five concerts across more than a year has inevitably meant sacrificing some of the focus and intensity of the journey. Still, it was a distinct pleasure to hear Sunday's program, consisting of Quartets Nos. 10, 11, and 12, written in the mid- and late-1960s. These three works are not performed often, as they lack the sustained Sturm und Drang of the Eighth, or the numinous aura of lateness (with its aptly Beethovenian ring) that attends the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth.
Yet they are each remarkable pieces on their own terms. The Tenth has a depth and subtlety of invention belied by its modest scale and approachable charms. The Eleventh, laid out across seven short movements, is grippingly tragic music with flashes of wicked wit. The Twelfth flirts provocatively with atonality, opening with a 12-tone row in the cello part, but Shostakovich has other destinations in mind, and the itinerary is hair-raising.
On Sunday, the Borromeo Quartet gave performances that were technically assured and musically intelligent. The ensemble was at its best in the many driving and muscular passages, capturing much of the terror and fury that Shostakovich pours into his instrumental writing. The various slow movements also featured some beautifully dark blends of sound built upon the warm and generous tone of cellist Yeesun Kim.
There was however room to deepen, expand, and clarify. First violinist Nicholas Kitchen played with a wonderful calm charisma, though his clarity of phrasing, his rhythmic sensitivity, and his imagination of tone were not always matched by all of his colleagues. There is also a dryness to the composer's wit, a slashing quality to his humor that was at times given short shrift. Like the Beethoven quartets, this cycle is one to which an ensemble can and should return over the years. One looks forward to the final installment of this series, but also to hearing how this fine quartet approaches the music on its next pass.