It is the last of the six weeks of this year’s Monadnock Music Festival, taking place in the halls and historic meeting houses of this picturesque region of southwestern New Hampshire. In its 43rd season, under the new artistic directorship of Jonathan Bagg and Laura Gilbert, it is a delightfully eclectic mixture of chamber music, both from the standard repertoire and recently composed or commissioned works. The atmosphere is lively and informal, with commentary by the musicians and often by the composers themselves; and the audiences are loyal, educated, and appreciative. Musicians from around the country and Europe are of the highest caliber; some have been coming to play for 25 years, others are new, up-and-coming performers.
The concert on Friday, August 14, featured the incomparable Borromeo Quartet, well known to Boston audiences as the quartet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The concert, the last of a Monadnock Music series “Along the Beethoven Trail” scattered throughout the season, featured two greats: the late quartet Opus 131 in C-sharp major and the Opus 59 #1 in F major (Razumovsky).
The concert started with an enjoyable and informative commentary by the first violinist Nicholas Kitchen—backed by a projection of the original Beethoven manuscript and punctuated with phrase illustrations by members of the quartet. They demonstrated how Beethoven’s love and careful study of the works of J.S. Bach (particularly the Well Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue) was widely evident in his late quartets with the use of fugal techniques and the potent interval of a semi-tone.
The Borromeo, which also includes Kristopher Tong (violin), Mai Motobuchi (viola), and Yeesun Kim (cello), has been lauded for their playing of the Beethoven and Bartok cycles. Their rendition of Opus 131 this evening was amazing, a delicate conversation among friends, always impelled forward, with phrase endings perfectly slowing from one instrument to the next. This was beautifully highlighted by their new seating formation, with the two violins on the outside, weaving the melody together by gently tossing the melody from one to the other.
If ever there was a reason to attend a live performance, the Borromeo Quartet is a fine one. Their carefully crafted performances are still full of spontaneity and they are masters of lifting the music off the page with a true range of dynamic and emotional contrasts. Exquisitely stunning soft passages truly draw the listener in, such as at the start of the second movement of Op. 131. Their pacing of louder passages was equally brilliant as they saved the most exuberant sound for just the right moment as at the end of the recapitulation of the first movement of Opus 59, No. 1.
No one dominates in this group, there are no prima donnas, each member of the quartet is a distinct voice, but each listens, responds and dances with their partners for an unforgettable performance.