in: Reviews

December 1, 2009

Borromeo Champions “Old” and New Masters

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For those of us in Boston who have watched the rapid development of the Borromeo String Quartet into one of the tiny number of world-beating quartets, it’s a little hard to believe that they are now 20 years into their existence. Like most long-running ensembles, its membership has changed over time, although the current roster, with founders Nicholas Kitchen, first violin, and Yeesun Kim, cello, joined by second violin Kristopher Tong and violist Mai Motobuchi, has been in place long enough to ensure the continuity of the Borromeo’s group personality. Their Jordan Hall performance on Monday, November 30, continued their longstanding commitment to stretching the repertoire to include “old” masters of the 20th century and freshly minted works. This evening brought to its large and highly appreciative audience one relative newcomer to watch and two Old Masters, of whom one, Gunther Schuller, was on hand to accept the plaudits that were his due.

The newcomer is Mohammed Fairouz, an Egyptian-born 24-year-old composer who has already amassed an impressive catalogue of works. His “Lamentation and Satire” was composed last year on commission from the Béla Quartet, a New England Conservatory group, and has been taken up by the Borromeo on several occasions; they have recorded it for release on Schuller’s own GM label, and you can even hear one of their earlier live performances here on Fairouz’s web site. It is nominally a two-movement work, but the Lamentation and the Satire flow together and utilize similar melodic materials. In fact, the segue from keening to kidding is quite subtle, involving, it would seem, more a matter of introducing compositional and sonic techniques of earlier periods—rigorous counterpoint, Bartókian glissandi, a touch of Shostakovich here and there—than overt jocularity. Repeated hearing may make the intent clearer (this was one of those occasions when program notes, of which there were none, might have helped prep the listener), but fortunately the overall sound of the piece was attractive enough that listening again will not be a chore. It seems almost unnecessary to say, but the Borromeo’s performance was what most composers can usually only dream of: clean, passionate, exquisite.

Is it too soon to speak of Gunther Schuller as an Old Master? Like some of the other octogenarians who have been celebrated this year, such as Yehudi Wyner (to say nothing of centenarian Elliott Carter), Schuller keeps chugging on with no hint of decline. You can see his remarks about his Fourth String Quartet, and much else, in BMInt’s interview published here last week. The piece, only six years old, received a bravura reading by the Borromeo. It is a seemingly elegiac work, with two outer slow movements framing an electrically charged central sort-of-scherzo, from which the Borromeo unleashed crackling energy. Nevertheless, the melancholy air prevailed in the alternatingly spooky and tender first movement, the “trio” of the second, and the weeping and chorale-like passages of the finale. That all may not be entirely as it appears on the surface, though, is suggested by the very end, in which, as in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, the players exit one by one to leave the cello intoning to a fade-out: it all gives the impression of a personal farewell, until one notices Schuller’s sprightly step and twinkling eye when called to the stage for his applause.

The oldest music on the program was Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, from 1928, but it remains one of the freshest-sounding works ever created for this medium; still crazy after all these years. Bartók is perhaps the paradigm of the romantic modernist—a label, if one wanted to use one. The work abounds in querulous dissonance, rhythmic irregularity, and technical innovations—ah, those glissandi, those harmonics, that Bartók pizz!—in service to an expressive ideal that comes right out of Liszt and Beethoven. The Borromeo dug right in and unleashed the passion and energy that any perfect performance requires, with the high polish and precision to show off the quicksilver muted first scherzo, the reed-organ accompaniment to Kim’s gorgeous solos in the central slow movement, and the mock-zither pizzicato of the second scherzo. The opening movement was taken slightly more slowly than other versions I’ve heard, but the savage intensity of the finale was all there and then some.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.
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