This past Sunday afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, the Borromeo String Quartet inaugurated a survey of major chamber works by Antonín Dvořák with electrifying performances of the String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (American) and the String Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97, assisted by NEC-based violist Roger Tapping.
It has always seemed to me that the establishment classical music community has handled Dvořák as a second-class citizen. There are a handful of popular and widely performed warhorses, but most of the symphonies and chamber music seem relegated to a Slavic ghetto (performances reviewed here, here, here, here, and here, notwithstanding); it seems like no group performs some of the string quartets unless the ensemble has a minimum number of diacriticals in their members’ names. So it is great news that a first-rate ensemble like the Borromeo Quartet will be devoting five concerts at the Gardner Museum to Dvořák quartets, quintets, and sextets.
Today’s program serves as a companion piece to the song recital given at the Gardner in October and reviewed here, exploring the American influence on Dvořák’s music. Both of today’s works, the songs in the recital, and the infamous Symphony in E Minor, Op. 95, all hail from Dvořák’s tenure as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America (New York City, 1885-1952). In that stretch from 1892 to 1895, Dvořák sought out “American music,” including traditional Native American and African-American melodies, and used them to inspire his own compositions. Musicologists have argued about where those inspirations are to be found, though it is clear that the two pieces share similar sounding melodic material.
The String Quartet in F, easily Dvořák’s best known, received a full-throated performance. All of the virtues of the Borromeos that we in Boston have come to take for granted were in full evidence, such as violist Mai Motobuchi’s arresting, lush tone and range of colors in handling the first movement’s opening pentatonic motif. The quartet members exchanged roles between leading and accompanying with seamless transparency, and played moments like the chorale-like second subject of the first movement with exquisitely balanced chords. In the fugato at the end of the development, each player gave the subject with distinctive shape and articulation. And the exchanges of glances and communication between the members allowed the parts to merge into a cohesive whole.
The slow second movement showed remarkable attention to the details in a squeezebox-like ostinato figure. Repeating the same short rhythmic motif over and over can invite sloppy slurring after the twentieth or thirtieth repetition, but here every pizzicato from cellist Yeesun Kim, every arpeggio from violist Motobuchi was shaped and placed with the same care and intent. This crisp rhythmic backdrop set the scene admirably for fine solo turns from first violinist Nicholas Kitchen, then cellist Kim, then violinists Kitchen and Kristopher Tong playing the tune in canon. The second movement descended down the instruments’ registers to a beautiful, hushed finish.
The syncopations and cross-rhythms of the Scherzo third movement owe more to the folk music of Moravia and Bohemia, which served as Dvořák’s first inspiration. Here, violinists Kitchen and Tong, seated opposite each other in the “front” of the ensemble, matched each other stroke for stroke in call and response, and the performance was full of striking dynamic contrasts and sharp rhythmic gestures. The fourth movement Finale began at a lively gallop, though the group backed skillfully into transitions between segments, slowing and speeding back up with unified purpose. And the coda of the Finale turned the gallop into an exuberant sprint to the finish, moving so fast it teetered on the edge of spinning out of control (though it never lost unity of rhythm and harmony), and with bow upstrokes played with such gusto that it seemed like the four players were prepared to lift up off their chairs. It made for a thrilling finish to the first half of the program.
During intermission, one conventional music stand was placed among the quartet’s MacBook Pro music stands. The seating order changed, with violinists Kitchen and Tong sitting to cellist Kim’s right, and violist Roger Tapping joining Motobuchi to Kim’s left, for the String Quintet in E-flat. Tapping is also a master chamber musician, as an illustrious veteran of the Allegri Quartet, the Takács Quartet, and the Boston Chamber Music Society; as director of the Chamber Music program at the New England Conservatory; and as the new violist of the Juilliard String Quartet in the fall of 2013. Tapping’s skills were in evidence from the start, playing the first movement’s opening theme with a rich, luscious tone, watching the Borromeo members with the same hawk-like intensity, and handing off with violinist Kitchen and violist Motobuchi with the same grace. The second movement Scherzo begins with a repeated-note figure which Tapping played with rhythmic verve and shape.
The ensemble continued to work together beautifully in the theme-and-variations third movement. It began with violas and cello playing as with one mind, worked through a creative array of instrumental combinations, and closed with breathtaking hushed homophony. The finale’s main theme has the rhythmic and melodic shape of Dvořák’s Humoresque in G-flat. Kitchen led the proceedings but left room for the exquisite rapid-fire exchange of pizzicato figures between Tapping and Motobuchi. The ensemble accelerated faster and faster in the coda until all five threatened to go airborne and brought the concert to an electrifying finish.
A few words on the performance space: There has been vigorous discussion in many places, including this journal, about the design and acoustics of the Gardner Museum’s new Calderwood Hall. This concert offered me a chance to contrast the Borromeos’ sound at Calderwood with their sound in concerts at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Acoustically, Calderwood Hall is not in the same league as Jordan Hall. The sound is clear and transparent, to be sure, and all the individual four voices can be separated easily, but Calderwood Hall is significantly drier, so that the violins in particular did not ring or resonate the way I’m used to hearing from violinists Kitchen and Tong in Jordan Hall. The Gardner space worked to highlight cellist Kim: with her cello stickpin connected to the actual floor of the 40 ft. square room (rather than on the less-well-coupled stage of Jordan Hall), it made her noticeably louder than her colleagues, and projected a steely tone that doesn’t match the lush sound I remember from Jordan Hall. The ringing partials and overtones that I cherish from the Borromeo’s exquisitely tuned chords only sounded out a handful of times on Sunday. Perhaps the loss in richness of sound is offset by a sense of intimacy. On the ground level the quartet sits no more than 20 feet away from anybody. The small space permits the quartet room to play at beautifully hushed dynamics, leaving you feeling like you’re overhearing in an intimate conversation.
The Borromeos will present part II of their Dvořák cycle at the Gardner Museum on Sunday, February 3 with the String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, Op. 51 (Slavonic) and the String Quintet in G, Op. 77 (with double bassist Donald Palma). The Borromeos and repeat the Op. 97 Quintet (with Tapping) at NEC’s First Monday in Jordan Hall on Monday, March 4, and they return to the Gardner on Sunday, April 14 with the String Quartet No.13 in G, Op. 106 and the Sextet in A, Op. 48 (with violist Yura Lee and cellist Paul Katz).