Borromeo gets back to Beethoven

The sight of four MacBook Pros on the stage of the Gardner Museum's Tapestry Room on Sunday afternoon could only mean that the Borromeo String Quartet was in the house – back from their summer adventures to resume the Beethoven cycle that the foursome began in April. The combination of Beethoven's music, 16th-century tapestries hanging on the wall, and the computers made for an intriguing clash of cultures.

The Borromeo is traversing Beethoven's quartets by what you might call the sampler formula: one quartet each from the composer's early, middle, and late periods, allowing listeners to absorb the composer's astonishing development in miniature. Sunday's concert opened with the Quartet in A major, Op.18 No.5 and closed with the E-flat Quartet, Op.127. The two share one obvious point of common ground: a slow movement cast as a theme and variations. In the earlier quartet, Beethoven demonstrates his aptitude in a form that was crucial to his forebears; in the later one, he transcends and reinvents the tradition. The later movement has an ethereal sense of flow, each variation giving way seamlessly to the next. It is a long, spellbinding movement, music to get lost in; yet when it slips away, there is an uncanny sense that it has ended all too soon.

Those two movements featured some of the Borromeo's finest playing of the day. In the early movement there was buoyancy and an alertness to Beethoven's startling gambits; in the later one, delicately spun melodies and an ideal sense of pacing. Elsewhere in both quartets, things were less assured, including patches of uncertain intonation and a somewhat coarse sound. Nevertheless, what the playing lacked in polish it made up for in drive and intensity.

Between these two came Beethoven's "Serioso'' Quartet in F minor, Op. 95. This furiously concentrated work, one of the shortest of Beethoven's quartets, made the strongest overall impression of the afternoon. The Borromeo's playing was restless and insistent, from the piece's edgy opening to the coda, played with a thrilling sense of abandon.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

By David Weininger | Sept 28, 2010, BOSTON GLOBE
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