Yesterday afternoon the Borromeo Quartet presented the fifth and final concert in its cycle of the Beethoven String Quartets in the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall. For almost three hours, those of us who braved traffic to Fenway Park and committed a warm and sunny afternoon to the increasingly chilly concert space heard captivating readings of Beethoven’s three final quartets.
The concert began with Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. From the subdued and ruminative opening Assai sostenuto, ending vigorously Allegro, the Borromeo Quartet gave a wide-ranging and varied account. The Allegro ma non tanto was tender, with strong interjections; the “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” was a calm and simple chorale, building to a magisterial intensity of feeling before relaxing again. The Alla marcia, assai vivace began like a folk-tune, recalling earlier drone passages in the Allegro, then shifting to a minor modality, before flying into the fiery conclusion of the Allegro appassionato. For all this rush to the conclusion, there were still moments of tenderness and sudden shifts of mood and dynamic, recalling earlier movements and unifying the work as a whole.
Following a brief pause, the Borromeo Quartet returned to the stage to perform Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. The opening Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo begins with a walking melody and harmony and in many ways is more adventurous than Beethoven’s 15th quartet. The Borromeo Quartet followed the music on this journey, relishing the adventure. The Allegro molto vivace is a quintessential Beethoven scherzo with a repeated dotted rhythm to propel the music and still musically and rhythmically varied enough to keep the music exciting. The Adagio quasi un poco andante begins with a descending lament-theme, which then turns into tension, excitement, launching us on the Allegro conclusion which rejects mourning in an impassioned fight for its own continued life.
As if this much music were not enough (and for some in the audience it was), the Borromeo Quartet returned after intermission to present Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130 with the original ending of Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. From the weighty opening of the Adagio, ma non troppo, reflected later in the opening of the Grosse Fuge, this quartet had a forward momentum, often begun by the cello, which kept the lengthy work from wallowing in its own lush excess. The Allegro assai “Alla danza tedesca” skipped and cavorted; the Cavatina, Adagio molto espressivo, radiated warmth and tenderness. The Grosse Fuge, a technical behemoth in its own right, came at the end of a concert that ran almost three hours long. Few are the quartets who could turn in a respectable reading of this movement under those conditions; Borromeo met this challenge and presented an emotion-laden musical journey with technical pyrotechnics tossed aside like picayunes.
The applause was thunderous, and sustained.
The Borromeo Quartet have lately made a name for themselves for playing from full scores, sometimes autograph manuscripts, on MacBook laptops equipped with foot pedals to advance the pages. In addition to their work with video projection and educational technology, they are updating what it means, and how, to perform chamber music. A few months ago the New York Times profiled the quartet and discussed its adopting of the new, technological means of reading music. This was my first time experiencing it and from the number of audience members who walked up to the laptops before the concert to check it out (thanks to the fluid notion of what is the stage in Calderwood Hall), I do not think I was alone. For all this innovation and technology, it in no way detracted from the caliber of the music-making; in fact, I think it helped. At every moment of the concert, each member of the quartet was fully aware of the other parts and the scope of the work as a whole. There was a clear sense of the architecture of each quartet.
The real treat of hearing this music in this venue was the possibility to revel in the inner voices. Kristopher Tong on second violin gave affective voice to the musical lines, and Mai Motobuchi, viola, was a powerhouse of richly resonant playing and depth of tone. Yeesun Kim, cello, kept the music grounded, with propulsion as needed, and gorgeously varied phrasing and dynamics. Nicholas Kitchen, on first violin, struggled with intonation, a reflection less on him than on the increasingly cold temperatures in Calderwood Hall as the afternoon progressed. The first violin line remained a forceful presence throughout much of the concert, and I found this detracting from the variations in color and dynamic so artfully conveyed in the other voices. A string quartet is often described as a conversation among four instruments, ideally among four equal partners. For the next Borromeo Quartet conversation, I want to sit, again, in full view of Yeesun Kim: her facial expressions perfectly embodied the changing tenor and mood of the conversations and the sheer pleasure in performing which she evinces is contagious!
The members of the Borromeo Quartet gave themselves an immense and challenging program for one concert. Yes, it completes a survey of all Beethoven’s quartets in five concerts, but at what price? Surely they must be exhausted after such a feat, but I also worry about their own sanity. I voice my concern because I do not want to see them burn out from such intense programming.