The program given by the Borromeo String Quartet at NEC’s Jordan Hall on February 26 was a somewhat unusual affair in that, apart from the first piece, nothing performed was by the Borromeo alone. They were variously joined by young NEC-affiliated winners of the “2012 Borromeo String Quartet Guest Artist Award,” which as far as we could make out (it was not explained in the program or on either the Borromeo or NEC web sites) means that these are current NEC students with whom the quartet wanted to perform. Fair enough. In the event, these collaborations on works by Britten, Dvorák and Mendelssohn, plus the opening piece by Mohammad Fairouz, made for a pleasingly diverse and generally satisfying evening.
First on the menu was Chorale Fantasy for String Quartet, a 2010 composition Fairouz wrote for the Borromeo and of which this performance was the Boston premiere. Fairouz, an NEC graduate now living in New York, is a composer with whom the Borromeo has established an ongoing relationship. The title “Chorale Fantasy” invokes the Bachian chorale prelude, but whatever his intentions (there were no program notes, but the blurb on the Borromeo’s NEC web page indicates that this was so), the “chorale” was more of an articulated (in the same sense that newer Green Line trolleys are) melody that he immediately begins amending with touches of Near-Eastern cantillation. After a gentle start, the energy level picks up and the melody is developed, not only contrapuntally, but in ways we would more closely associate with Romanticism. After a period of intensely throbbing rhythm, it ends quietly with what may be, Ives-style, a fragment of the chorale melody proper. This short piece was quite attractive overall, and it received as skillful and committed a reading from the Borromeo (for the record, comprising Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello) as one has come to expect from this top-drawer ensemble.
Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937), British industrialist and passionate musical amateur who, according to the 1927 edition of Grove’s, “has given to commerce what time [he] could spare from music,” established a prize for composers to write chamber works in the form of what he called a “phantasy,” which he imagined to be a 12-minute single-movement work encompassing a variety of tempi and moods. If you want to know more about this unique concept, you could read a whole thesis on it here. Among the composers who either won the prize or were specifically commissioned to write Cobbetoid phantasies are Frank Bridge, Haydn Wood, James Friskin, John Ireland, York Bowen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ethel Barns, and, in 1932, the 19-year-old Benjamin Britten. Actually, Britten wrote two phantasies, the one for string quartet that won the prize, and the one for oboe and string trio, op. 2, that appeared on Sunday’s program with NEC undergraduate Elizabeth O’Neil joining Tong, Motobuchi, and Kim.
The Phantasy, an engaging and charming bit of early Britten, reveals the composer’s precocious cleverness. It begins with a march-like rhythm in the strings against which he sets a liquid and limpid melody in the oboe — and O’Neil’s playing of it merits the same adjectives. This opening passage begins from nothing, and in this performance it emerged from near silence, more so than in any recording we’ve heard. It recurs at the close, in reverse pattern, equally brilliantly carried off. The intervening passages both develop these ideas and sometimes invert them instrumentally and establish the varying moods as per Cobbett’s specifications. Our interest and, we suspect, Britten’s inspiration, flagged a bit in the center, but the performances were all first-rate, with polish to spare. O’Neil got the hearty hometown ovation she deserved.
Emely Phelps, pianist of the Cleonice Piano Trio, which is in residence at NEC while its members pursue master’s degrees, joined the quartet for Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81 (properly the Quintet No. 2, but the composer withdrew his op. 5 effort in the same key) to finish the forepart of the program. This quintet is one of the most popular works in the genre — the theme of the “Furiant” Scherzo being one of Dvorák’s best known — and so little description is needed here. A brief but cogent description appears on Wikipedia here. Of the performance we can observe that Phelps took a while in the opening movement to find her voice, but find it she did, with an admirable display of chops in the fast bits and with a lovely delicacy in the second movement, “Dumka.” The strings produced an appropriately plummy Romantic sound, with Kim and Motobuchi especially evocative with well-gauged rubato. There was an element of perceived raggedness in the Finale, but we judge this to be less a matter of execution than a glitch in Dvorák’s writing: there are times when his string scoring is too “string quartetty,” with divided parts in rich counterpoint, without enough acknowledgment of that big booming black box alongside them. Luckily, Phelps was no cheap and chippy chopper, and declined to drown out her companions. And, in the end, Dvorák and the participants pulled together for the brilliant and fiery conclusion.
The second part of the concert was given over to a particular favorite of the Borromeo, the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat, op. 20, and instead of staffing up with a second fully-formed string quartet, the Borromeo brought in the two strings from the Cleonice Trio, Ari Isaacman-Beck, violin, and Gwen Krosnick, cello, along with other NEC graduate students Rhiannon Bannerdt, violin and Wenting Kang, viola. It should be stressed that by referring to these young players as “students,” we are not suggesting that their quality is anything less than prodigiously professional — all are, in fact, extravagantly talented, exquisitely trained, and fast becoming performers of stature.
On earlier occasions the Borromeo has performed this Octet using Mendelssohn’s original 1825 score rather than the more usual 1832 revision; we don’t know which version they used on Sunday. Whichever it was, the first thing we noticed about the performance was that the sound was darker and heavier than what we are accustomed to hearing in this quintessentially elfin and diaphanous piece. Was this interpretive, or just lead-footed? Some of the “plus-four” players seemed to be holding their breath as they raced through the breaks. After a perfectly balanced and cozy slow movement, the Scherzo, the first of Mendelssohn’s patented fairyland wonders, which has to be soufflé-light, seemed at times too much like the soufflés we concoct, alas, but the ending of the movement was perfect. In the Finale, which overall was well done but not the best rendition we’ve ever heard, it seemed too often as if first violinist Kitchen was trying to hold the ensemble together with his pyrotechnics, which were formidable. There was also a bit of a balance problem, sonically and — perhaps because from where we sat it was so evident — visually, as one of the “plus-four,” with a big smile but flamboyant body English and beefy tone, grabbed rather more than an aliquot share of the cookies.
You, however, may beg to differ, and NEC has happily made it easy to do so, whether you were in attendance or not. This program is among those it has put on its InstantEncore site, here, where you can stream or even download the performances. It’s well worth the one-time bother of registering, and is, in our opinion, one of the best services NEC performs for the wider public.
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.