The Borromeo String Quartet hardly need the press, but it was awfully nice to be able to catch them in concert. As expected, they brought an element of transcendence to what was, at least from this particular vantage point, a crazy weekend. And it was encouraging to see a good crowd come out for what was a characteristically adventurous bill, cold drizzle and all, a program as captivating as it was elegantly nightmarish. They opened with Mohammed Fairouz’ ambient, aptly titled Lamentation and Satire, the first part a tone poem whose tensely acidic counterpoint moved between restrained mournfulness and full-out grief, the second featuring cellist Yeesun Kim expertly walking a tightrope between the swirling violins of Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong up to a couple of devious false endings, and a bell-like staccato device on the cello that despite itself reverted to the anguish and loss of the preceding segment.
The ensemble has been recording the complete Gunther Schuller quartets. Monday’s choice was the Second, hypnotic, ambient and off-kilter with a Messiaenesque defiance of any kind of consonant harmony, particularly the abrasive, aggressive second movement with its brief, jazzlike solos around the horn. The anxiety never let up, all the way through to the final lento passage where each soloist got to leave the stage in turn, cello ending it with a pizzicato funeral bell.
They ended the night with Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet. It’s a snidely provocative piece, opening with the same kind of savagery and wrath as Bartok’s First, but it’s also full of fun and the group accentuated that. Several of its passages – a series of faux Romantic codas, a furtively swirling “dance” and the chase scene that sets off the final movement – would make a very effective biography of a really annoying, blustery individual. But there’s also the remarkable third movement that comes in as a complete surprise on the heels of an offhandedly vicious cello solo, cantabile yet upbeat. And then the Nutcracker-esque pizzicato fourth movement, as caustic and dismissive as it was bouncy and amusing. And the long, disembodied crescendo of the final movement, building to the flourishes of a false ending slapped aside by the menacing growl of the cello.
The Borromeo String Quartet remain ensconsed in Boston (at the New England Conservatory and the Gardner Museum) after a long run at Lincoln Center; their next performance is a selection of Haydn quartets on December 13 at 2 PM at the Forsyth Chapel in Jamaica Plain, MA.