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Grappling with Bartok's dark, haunting visions
The Borromeo String Quartet seems restless, in the most positive sense of the word, always engaged in new projects or new approaches to older ones. These days the Borromeo has had Bartok on its mind as it prepares to record the complete string quartets. It has been digging into archival manuscripts and parsing the composer's own cryptic notations in an attempt to probe more deeply into these dark monuments at the heart of the 20th-century chamber music literature. There have been live performances, too, most recently a two-part traversal of all six works that concluded on Sunday at the Gardner Museum with richly rewarding accounts of the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Quartets.

Overall, the Borromeo's approach to Bartok is both grounded and fanciful, with a compellingly aggressive and gritty approach to the rustic and folk-inflected elements in this music but also a feel for its gripping interior dramas and the magical surfaces of the composer's various sound worlds.

Still, even with the best preparation, anything can of course happen in the flush of live performance. Sunday's program got off to a rocky start as second violinist Kristopher Tong's tuning peg slipped during the first movement of the Second Quartet, rendering his E-string useless. With a cool head and nimble fingers though, he managed to work around the problem by playing high up on other strings, making it through the movement honorably until a break allowed for retuning.

The Fourth Quartet received the strongest performance of the afternoon, with the eerie night music of its central movement brilliantly set off by the tense muted scurrying of the Prestissimo and the riveting plucked drama of the Allegretto Pizzicato, for which Bartok has all four players lay down their bows and work solely with fingers on strings. The heated final movement had all the surging momentum and explosive energy you could ask for.

The other two quartets did not land with the same otherworldly force but there was still plenty to appreciate here. Some ensembles give the impression of serving as conduits to an interpretation carefully worked out in rehearsal. But the Borromeo offered an afternoon of edge-of-the-seat music-making that grappled palpably with the composer's dark haunting visions in the process of bringing them to life.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Jeremy Eichler, Globe Staff, Boston Globe
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