On Tuesday evening, March 3, in Jordan Hall, Boston’s Borromeo Quartet performed three of Beethoven’s late string quartets, Opus numbers 130, 131 and 132. Any chance to hear just one of these pieces is hard to pass up. To get to listen to all three together, played by a top-notch ensemble, for free, comes close to the opportunity of a lifetime. Even in the middle of the workweek, a sizeable audience turned out.
The Borromeo chose to perform the quartets in reverse numerical order. All three were composed by Beethoven in a short span towards the very end of his life, so that their numerical order is not exactly chronological. In this concert, Opus 132, in A minor—the first of the three to be finished and surely to some people among Beethoven’s absolutely finest creations-began somewhat inauspiciously. The individual instrumentalists played sharply and well. Still, there was something missing in ensemble and phrasing, and I thought the dynamic balance needed adjusting. Facing the profound andante of the third movement, however, the quartet sprang to life, each player pouring her or his heart out in music that demands every bit of heart one has. To my ears the balance turned just right, the phrasing sublime and the control of dynamics and tempo simply masterful. Moreover, having caught the spirit, the ensemble didn’t let go. The two last movements built on the firm ground of the andante, with the allegro appassionato finale rising to a climax that left hearts—this time those of the audience—soaring.
Opus 131, in C-sharp minor and the last of the three to be composed, is my favorite. At the outset of the concert, first violinist Nicholas Kitchen compared the piece structurally to an island paradise surrounded on both sides, beginning and end, by troubled, foggy seas. With its arching structure, the piece calls for everything from the tightest integration of line, often piano, to the broadest and brashest expressionism, sometimes forte. In both technique and sensibility, the Borromeo matched Beethoven’s every demand. The wonderful andante-adagio variations in the middle (Kitchen’s paradise), where Beethoven pulls out all the stops on his signature technique of variation by subtraction, often dropping the melodic line to make counterpoint and harmony force the listener to reconstruct it in the ears of the mind, requires a supreme effort. Careful ensemble and tonal clarity are needed in those variations where the musical line is thin and tightly stretched, but without a solid conception of the whole and adroit use of dynamics, the movement’s separate pieces can easily fall apart. No danger of this happening with the Borromeo on stage. These players not only are superb technicians; they also know how to play together practically as one. The forceful allegro at the end combined precision and power to bring the first half of the program to a stirring close.
After intermission and turning to the middle of the three pieces, Opus 130 in B-flat major, the performers strangely seemed to fall back into the slight funk with which the program began. Perhaps part of the fault lies with Beethoven himself. This piece, where to my ears Beethoven engages his late innovative audacity of form fully for one of the very first times, consists not so much of separate movements as separate parts of movements. Tempo markings tell the listener more about structure than any more traditional listing of movements possibly can. Here, too, composition is often by subtraction, now not just melodically but also formally. Toying with the listener, Beethoven almost backs into the first movements or parts, by classical standards leaving his thematic commitments ambiguous. It is as if the composer was depending on the audience, accustomed to classical form, to provide by imagination the structure required to put into perspective the fragments he set forth. A firm grip on the part of the players is absolutely essential. For the first several movements (or parts), the Borromeo appeared unable to come to the audience’s aid. Phrasing was sometimes ambiguous, ensemble not always strong, and even pitch occasionally problematic.
As at the program’s start, however, the quartet quickly found its footing. By the section alla danza tedesca, the music had begun to fall together. Happily, the players chose to end the whole with Beethoven’s original finale, his Grosse Fuge. That is a composition of overwhelming dimensions for both players and audience. In this case, the quartet shouldered practically the entire burden themselves with a performance magically shifting the weight of the technical and structural challenges directly onto the emotional fulcrum of the sound. As often throughout these quartets, Beethoven relies heavily here on first violin and cello. Kitchen proved that he can play like a virtuoso and still approach the music with a theorist’s command and reserve. On cello, Yeesun Kim summoned equal technical flourish, along with a tonal power and clarity of line giving her colleagues just the grounding required. Mai Motobuchi plays viola with a marvelous touch, productive of elegant finish and line. At times, I wished she had raised the volume and intensity, especially when the musical focus fell on her. As for Kristopher Tong, who joined the group only a few years ago, he completely belied his age. The Grosse Fuge gives the second violin several opportunities to shine. Invariably, he responded with phrasing and mellowness of tone worthy of a seasoned pro.
Together, these pieces offer the listener a unique auditory experience. For all the stretching of form and playing of games, Beethoven uses these late compositions to squeeze out every drop of sonic richness the classical string quartet can yield. It takes an ensemble of exceptional caliber to realize that tonal potential to the full. The Borromeo Quartet demonstrated that they are up to the job.