The Borromeo String Quartet – Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello, — along with Laurence Lesser, cello, paid tribute to their teacher and colleague Bernard Greenhouse on Friday, August 12, in Wellfleet. A founder and long-time member of the Beaux-Arts Trio, Greenhouse died at his home in Wellfleet this past May, at age 95. A student of Casals, he was known for his deeply expressive playing. When his father brought a cello home to him at the age of eight, it was love at first sight, and Greenhouse played this instrument with great acclaim in concerts and recitals throughout his long life.
The performance began with a moving video portrait of Greenhouse, with pictures taken through his long career, in which he spoke of his feelings about music and musicianship and comments on his unique cello voice. It was put together by his long-time student and friend, Dr. Thomas Delbanco – a violinist and a BMInt contributor. It was delightful to see the video for the second time; I saw it first at a benefit concert for the Outer Cape Health Service shortly after Bernie’s death. The OCHS had hoped Greenhouse could play – as he had the previous year – but it was not to be. In that OCHS concert the Fry Street String Quartet played one of his favorite pieces, the adagio of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. Cellist Paul Katz played Greenhouse’s part on his own cello, the Countess of Stanlein Stradivarius of 1707, once owned by Paganini and restored through Greenhouse’s efforts. (In Friday’s concert, the Borromeo and Laurence Lesser treated us to the entire piece.)
The video also gave those of us with little knowledge of his playing the chance to see and hear him play – in this case bits of the Beethoven piano trio with Nicholas Kitchen. Although the video segments were made late in Greenhouse’s life, the sensitivity and emotional power of the playing was evident. Greenhouse played with a great variety of dynamics, and a deliberate and constant wide vibrato – a strongly vocal sound. The passages chosen were places where the cello was playing solo and not fast, so the vocal quality was appropriate – although unusual in modern string playing.
First piece was Choral Fantasy for String Quartet, a commissioned short work by twenty-six-year-old Mohammed Fairouz, a rising popular New York composer. Kitchen gave him the challenge of composing one of eventually six choral fantasies for string quartet, each based on a chorale melody. The melody could be traditional, from another genre, or entirely made up. Once finished, the task of composing the next fantasy would fall to another composer. (John Harbison is up next.) Fairouz chose a Bach chorale as a cantus – although he claimed he had hidden it sufficiently that it would not be recognized. The piece consisted of a set of short variations, each in a different style. The first was relatively traditional harmonically, devoid of counterpoint, and with many unisons. The styles of the variations quickly diverged into Middle Eastern, klezmer, even jazz, before subtly returning to simpler style and unisons. The piece was very successful, and was greeted both with loud applause and bravos.
The Borromeo sat in an unusual configuration for the whole concert, with the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage. The cello was facing forward on the side with the first violin, and the viola, also facing forward, was next to the second violin. The arrangement puts the two strongest instruments next to each other, and lets the viola present the front of the instrument to the audience. It is almost always possible to distinguish the first violin and the cello in a string quartet, so putting them together does not hinder the ability of the audience to hear them separately. Putting the second violin on the opposite side of the group makes it much easier to hear, even though the second violin presents the back of the instrument to the audience. The downside is that unless the second violinist plays with more power he is less likely to balance with the rest of the quartet. This problem was evident throughout the concert – but not particularly problematic. The new arrangement also gave new life to the playing of Motobuchi on viola – a strong, rich tone, more like a cello than a viola.
The first movement of Beethoven’s String quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 74, another Greenhouse favorite, contains some great interchanges between the first and second violin, and the new seating arrangement made it much easier to hear them. In several places in the first movement all four instruments played pizzicato notes at different times, and the way the plucked sounds bounced around the quartet, enhanced by the seating arrangement, was delightful. I am fond of testing both the balance in a performance and the acoustics of a hall by trying to separately follow both the second violin and the viola line with my eyes closed. With the new arrangement, at least in the second row of the hall, this was both possible and enjoyable. The second movement, adagio, starts with a beautiful melody in the first violin, and (whether deliberately or not) Kitchen played it as I imagine Bernie Greenhouse would have – almost melodramatic and with Greenhouse’s wide vibrato. It was a wonderful way to hear and connect with the deceased master. Another interesting connection in the program was the nature of the adagio melody and the variations that followed it. The melody was more Schubert than Beethoven, and the Quartet’s playing brought out the similarity. The presto that followed was pure Beethoven – exceedingly fast. The final allegretto con variazioni was sometimes angry and dissonant – but the sweetness of the adagio theme came back in a lovely violin solo.
Schubert’s great cello quintet ended the program, a piece Greenhouse performed often and recorded four times. Once again in the first movement there were duets between the first and second violins, enhanced by the new seating arrangement. The second movement, adagio, is one of the most beautiful in Schubert’s oeuvre. The bass cello, played by Lesser, plays almost entirely pizzicato, plucking out the melody or commenting upon it. My ears were still ringing with the performance from June 4, where the huge Stanlein Strad’s exceptionally rich resonance on the two open bottom strings rang through the hall. Lesser’s Brothers Amati cello, although a wonderful instrument, lacked that incredible resonance. I have never before been aware of what a difference an exceptional instrument can make to a performance.
The third movement, Scherzo: Presto; Trio: Andante sostenuto, demonstrated one of Bernie Greenhouse’s points in the video – that it is often what you don’t play — the pauses or breaths between the notes — that lets the music live. In this performance not just the breaths, but the rests were evocative. The final allegretto movement brought the piece to a rousing finish and an instant standing ovation.