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Ardent Dvořák from Top Foursome Plus One


The Boromeo in laptop circle (Eli Akerstein)
The Boromeo in laptop circle (Eli Akerstein photo)

Yesterday, the Borromeo String Quartet offered a respite from preparations for Super Bowl Sunday, with Part II of their survey of major chamber works by Antonín Dvořák. The sold-out Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall witnessed an appealing pair of energetic, charming middle period works, the String Quartet #10 in E-flat, Op. 51, and the String Quintet in G, Op. 77, with the addition of New England Conservatory student double bassist Nathaniel Martin.

Dvořák began work on the Quartet in E-flat in 1878, shortly after finishing the first set of Slavonic Dances. He finished it the next year, shortly before working on his Violin Concerto. The work was commissioned by the Florentine Quartet, who wanted a quartet with “Slavic features.” Dvořák created a classically constructed four movement work which draws from a number of Czech dance forms. The opening movement, a sonata-form Allegro ma non troppo, opens with a squeezebox-like accompaniment from the lower strings, played with characteristic exquisite tuning by second violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim. First violinist Nicholas Kitchen entered with a gentle tune, starting with leaps, then a scale and a Czech rhythmic figure. This was echoed and developed in the middle strings. The second subject begins with a similar set of leaps as the first theme, and gets echoed rapid fire among the quartet members, then elaborated and embroidered over a steady cello pizzicato. The quartet observed the exposition repeat, then proceeded to the development, where a homophonic, chorale-like segment was played with more sublime tuning and ringing fifths. Violist Motobuchi was given the second subject in the recapitulation, and turned her phrase elegantly. The coda features a return to the squeezebox motif, played even more sublimely the third time around.

The second, Scherzo-like movement is among Dvořák’s first to draw from the dumka, a Czech folk dance which contrasts a melancholy, dreamy opening section with a spirited, exuberant second section. In this movement, the melancholy section is played as a call-and-response duet between the first violin and viola, while the cello strums an accompaniment. There is an interlude, played with yearning longing by Kitchen, which is then taken up by Motobuchi. The dreamy opening segment is repeated and then yields abruptly to a Vivace burst of Bohemian sunshine built around a faster variant of the same thematic material as in the melancholy section. I don’t think there is a group in existence that can play spiky, fast passages with the ardent energy of the Borromeos, and this uncanny communication also allows them to hit the brakes in unison. They drew out the pauses at the end of this section to prepare the way for the return of the opening slower segment. The Vivace segment returns in a brief coda, before the final reverberations vanished into silence.

The third movement Romanza begins with a heart-tugging melody played in parallel thirds by the violinists, alternating with foreboding harmony from the lower strings. Then, the tune is developed among the upper three strings over a cello pizzicato. There is an undercurrent of longing energy, but the atmosphere remains generally serene and untroubled, through a major-key recapitulation, an energetic exclamation, and then finally to a gentle parallel descent to a gorgeously hushed finish, executed to perfection by the Borromeos.

The finale draws from the sköna, a vigorous, jig-like Czech folk dance. The theme is played by the first violin, then the viola, then the violins in duet. Gather energy, they then pull back to second violin and cello playing in hushed octaves. There is a contrapuntal development section, then a segment with a dumka-like transition between hushed anticipation and explosive exuberance. The recapitulation featured a soulful rendition of the second subject by Tong, then the coda featured the kind of high-voltage frenetic finish that the Borromeo Quartet pull off with effortless aplomb.
During a brief intermission, audience members strolled out to peruse the scores still open on the ensemble’s four MacBook Pros mounted on music stands. Then a fifth MacBook Pro computer was set up between the other four, and NEC graduate student Nathaniel Martin joined the group on double bass for the String Quintet in G, Op. 77 (apparently Martin was a substitute for NEC faculty bassist Donald Palma who was originally listed on the Borromeo web site).

Despite the higher opus number, this work dates from 1875, and was one of the first works of Dvořák ‘s artistic maturity. It originally had five movements and was published as Op. 18, but revised eleven years later with one movement dropped. Dvořák uses the double bass oddly in this work; it does often free the cello to serve as a melodic instrument, but sometimes it doubles the cello part at the lower octave, and rarely emerges on its own.

The opening movement begins with pregnant foreboding in the double bass and lower strings, which builds unexpectedly to an ebullient sonata-allegro, based on a sped-up version of the same opening motif and punctuated periodically by big, rich chords. The second subject is articulated in groups of three eighth notes and a quarter, reminiscent of the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Then, as the work develops these ideas, instruments finish each other’s ideas and the Borromeos fed off of each other admirably. The exposition was repeated and then detoured into a minor key in the development. The Borromeos showed more of their enviable ensemble, with crescendos that stopped on a dime and pulled back with no loss of tone or tuning, and they took naturally to the gradually building, high-energy coda.

The second Scherzo movement also features ensemble chords which punctuate a subject with Bohemian syncopations. The B section of the Scherzo has a more lyrical first violin subject over rolling rhythmic figures in the lower strings, then the Scherzo returns, with a brief coda which vanishes in a string of chords. The Trio has a stop-and-go figure with a scale-like melody which then gives way to another Scherzo reprise. The Borromeos played this movement with rhythmic incisiveness and crisp, sharp chords.

The third movement, Poco andante, begins with an achingly beautiful boatman-like melody played by violist Motobuchi. The tune is echoed in the cello then emerges in the first violin. Kitchen evidently enjoyed the process of discovery and embellishment of this tune. An accompanying figure emerges, then switches to minor key foreboding. Then, the boatman melody returns in the cello part, and the recapitulation concludes with the Borromeos and Martin in a gradual ascent to a shimmering pianissimo. The finale begins with another jaunty, rhythmically angular theme, develops with lovely duetting and crisp dynamic contrasts, then emerges to another high-voltage finale filled with lovely deceptive cadences. The big finish brought the Gardner crowd to its feet.

In a previous review [here] I discussed my impression of the acoustics of Calderwood Hall. Today, I had a different view of the quartet, from behind, as I was late getting to the space. The result was interesting, in that it gave me the chance to see the scores flickering by on Motobuchi’s and Kitchen’s laptop screens, and allowed me to see how carefully Kristopher Tong watches his partners and inflects his playing to match what he hears. Yeesun Kim was also a delight to watch, grinning broadly in the exuberant rapid-fire finales. But the downside to having a quartet arrange themselves in their customary semi-circle is that Motobuchi and Kitchen had their backs to me, and their parts were harder to hear. An unusual hall like the Calderwood may call for unusual seating solutions for the performers; future chamber groups might consider sitting in a circle facing each other, and/or rearranging the direction they face for the second half of the program.

It was a terrific concert, of music that deserves to be heard more often. Not to worry if you didn’t manage to get a seat; the Borromeos visited WGBH on Friday and played the Op. 51 Quartet in their studios; you can hear the interview and performance [here] They will repeat the Double-Bass Quintet at NEC’s Jordan Hall on Monday, February 25 as part of the NEC Guest Artists Awards Concert. Then, the Borromeo Quartet return to the Gardner on Sunday, April 14 with the String Quartet #13 in G, Op. 106 and the Sextet in A, Op. 48 (with violist Yura Lee and cellist Paul Katz). Details are available at the Quartet web site [here] and at BMInt’s “Upcoming Events” page.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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