What, precisely, did Beethoven tell his future performers?
In music, typically the scholars worry about the autograph sources while performers focus on bringing them to life. Or as the pianist and polymath Charles Rosen once put it: “musicology is for musicians what ornithology is to the birds.”
By that description, Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, is an anomaly, the rarest of birds. And it’s precisely his performer’s view of the terrain of musicologists that may have just unlocked an extraordinary discovery — one that, if borne out, could influence the approach that musicians take to the entire body of Beethoven String Quartets.
By any measure, the composer’s 16 quartets are of course a pinnacle of Western art music, and before meeting with Kitchen to hear about his recent finds, I was already anticipating that the Borromeo’s six-performance traversal of the full quartet cycle, free to the public and beginning on March 8 in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory (where the Borromeo is the quartet-in-residence), would be a highlight of the local celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year.
But it turns out Kitchen has a lot more to share than the music itself. We met on a recent morning in a local cafe, where I found him with his laptop open, his coffee getting cold, and his face beaming. On his screen, opened across dozens of tabs, were scans of the autograph manuscripts of various Beethoven quartets, gathered by Kitchen from archives around the world.
Beethoven scholar Jeremy Yudkin called the violinist’s work “astounding.”“I think Mr. Kitchen may be onto something extremely important,” Yudkin, , wrote. “The evidence he has compiled and the detail of his observations are overwhelming. I readily admit that I was skeptical at first — as was everyone else I spoke to — but having read his most recent research and his extremely thorough analysis of some of Beethoven’s complete works in manuscript, I find myself convinced… I think it is very possible that this is one of those remarkable breakthroughs in music that come only once every few decades.” he will begin speaking about these discoveries in public presentations (at Tanglewood on July 18, and at the Library of Congress on Dec. 5)