BORROMEO STRING QUARTET AT:
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sunday
Twenty-one months ago, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Borromeo String Quartet began a five-concert chronological survey of Dmitri Shostakovich's 15 string quartets with a coming-out party of youthful insouciance. On Sunday, the group arrived at the last three quartets, a virtual wake. Not every composer's final music turns funereal - the late works of Shostakovich's friend Benjamin Britten belie that romantic notion - but even among the elegiac, Shostakovich is unique: No other composer charted the lines between life and death with such merciless clarity.
Shostakovich's Quartet No. 13 was finished in a hospital bed. The main protagonist is the viola, Shostakovich exerting its hollow, veiled quality; Mai Motobuchi produced a stoic depth, fading to a haunting, gauzy whisper. As the other three musicians crowd in with lean, claustrophobic dissonance, Shostakovich calls on the players to strike the backs of their instruments, a whip-like crack of grim punctuation. (The Borromeo opted to collectively sacrifice a cheap violin to the violent gesture.) At the end, the viola begins an ascent - a cliché of redemption - but the line keeps climbing higher, too high, until the violins push the tone into a unison shriek.
The Quartet No. 14 puts forth a more lyrical surface, but a harsh, tightly coiled core remains. Where the 13th spirals in, the 14th spirals out, into fantastic colors: a bittersweet major-minor violin-cello duet, a swirl of high and silvery arpeggios over a stabbing bass line. Cellist Yeesun Kim took the lead, turning on a dime between soft-edged velvet and taut nasality; the music's passing landscapes seemed mirages. The byplay between the two violinists also came into focus. If Nicholas Kitchen was the leading man, navigating moods within a steady persona, Kristopher Tong realized a host of character roles with mercurial incisiveness.
The group's individualities coalesced into sustained dramatic intensity for Shostakovich's final quartet, the 15th: both the grandest and most stripped-down, a slow, sparse epic of bare, persistent motives and insistent austerity. In one sense, the piece plays out as a kind of surrender, with little fight left to resist the pall of despair. But Shostakovich's lack of sentimental buffer proves defiant. For the duration of the piece, at least, the audience experiences time and mortality on Shostakovich's unblinking terms and no one else's.
Shostakovich survived an Orwellian life by reflecting its anxiety back onto the controlled stage of music. Death, for all its terrors, was just one more scene.
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