In their second consecutive appearance on October 18 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Borromeo String Quartet concluded their performance of the complete Bartók string quartets. Hearing the Borromeo’s performance of quartets No. 2, No. 4, and No. 6 made me quite regretful that I had missed the others the week before. Nonetheless, hearing Bartók’s fourth and sixth quartets in the same program is a rare and thrilling occasion – not only because they are two of the composer’s most celebrated works, but also for the high demand from the performers to really do the pieces justice. Amongst the antiquarian and intimate atmosphere of the Gardner Museum tapestry room, the Borromeo Quartet delivered a performance of the highest caliber, playing with energy, sensitivity, and a level of elegance that can only be achieved by musicians with such an impeccable proficiency for 20th-century music.
The performance String Quartet No. 2 was filled with charismatic references to the music of Debussy, mixed together with the seeds of Bartók’s distinct harmonic language that becomes so cohesive in his later works. After a splendid performance of the piece, first violinist Nicholas Kitchen explained their system of reading music off of laptops instead of sheet music to avoid page turns and to facilitate reading off of a score instead of parts. He also shared an interesting story of visiting Budapest and personally investigating some of Bartók’s original manuscripts, exploring different interpretations of moments in String Quartet No. 4 based on sketches of the piece.
The first movement of the fourth quartet relies entirely on a dialogue between two musical ideas that juxtapose each other throughout the movement, often interchanging at an extremely rapid pace. Being able to support dynamic contrast as the two ideas battle each other takes an immense amount of control. The Borromeo’s performance provided the intensity necessary in these moments in such an unrestrained manner that the musical dialogue in the composition flowed freely from the ensemble. Nicholas Kitchen, effortlessly drawing the audience into the momentum of the allegro pizzicato, led the group with high-spirited animation.
Violist Mai Motobuchi soulfully opened the sixth quartet with the Mesto theme, which recurs in different incarnations, growing in harmonic density at the beginning of each movement. By the final movement, the desolate theme develops into an entire entity of its own, incorporating ideas from the previous movements only enough to bring a sense of finality. The inclination of most concert programs (as well as multi-movement works) is to end big, loud, and fast. The complete opposite is never so effective as it is String Quartet No. 6. This is one of the most beautiful, gut-wrenching pieces the 20th century has to offer. The ensemble realized it immaculately, with the kind of weight and affect that leaves you in a trance at the end of the piece, unable to applaud, for only a moment.
The Gardner Museum’s Sunday concert series will feature the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center next week. You can catch The Borromeo String Quartet at Jordan Hall on November 7th, in the Celebrity Series of Boston.”