Ideal Victorian Gothic Setting for Borromeo at its Best

When Boston’s estimable Borromeo String Quartet is playing at its best, as it was in the Forsyth Chapel at Forest Hill Cemetery on Sunday, May 23, it is hubris to pen a critique of their performance.

The venue, a small, colorful and resonant Victorian Gothic chapel, gave ideal support to the ensemble, especially the cello. The program opened with Nicholas Kitchen’s transcription for string quartet of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Anne” Fugue for organ, BWV 552. Mr. Kitchen then segued into a 12-minute disquisition on slurs. It seems the standard editions often do not agree on how to group notes into phrases. Various editors had their particular ideas, but Nick Kitchen suggested that players, informed by composers’ intentions, apply Leopold Mozart’s advice to follow, “Good Taste in Music.”

He also referred to Ivan Galamian’s wish that all string quartets perform from full score rather than parts. Now that the Borromeo uses computer screens instead of printed sheets this becomes possible without distractingly over-frequent page turning. For Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major Op. 64 #6 (Hob. III:64), the group performed from PDFs of Haydn’s manuscript, which they were able to annotate electronically so as not to invoke the wrath of archivists.

From the ur-text the delicious slides in the third movement could be seen as Haydn’s intention rather than mere performance accretions. In the illustration at right the results of Leopold Mozart’s advice and the quartet’s research are represented by Kristopher Tong’s annotations.

The second half of the concert opened with a rapt interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2. Through the chapel’s open windows one could breathe the fragrant air and hear the miscued bird calls. The program ended with “The Big Fuge” (Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge), Op. 133, a performance that was, for the first time for this philistine reviewer, a pleasure to hear. The Borromeo’s combination of energy and elegance is unmatched by any contemporary foursome.

The members of the quartet are Nicholas Kitchen, violin; Kristopher Tong, violin; Mai Motobuchi, viola; Yessun Kim, cello.

Nicholas Kitchen’s absorbing program notes are here.

F. Lee Eiseman is publisher of The Boston Musical Intelligencer

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