IN: Reviews

Borromeo and Friends Do Dvořák


Based on the difference in opus numbers of these two works, and in the absence of program notes, I left the concert hall marveling at Dvořák’s ability to present a consistently individual sound across his career. Afterwards, I set about learning more about these specific compositions. Dvořák wrote his String Quartet No. 13 over the span of four weeks in late 1895, after his American sojourn. This is a mixed moment in his life:  after his time in America, Dvořák was more financially secure than ever before, but this is also a period of intense personal loss and mourning. The second movement of this quartet, marked Adagio ma non troppo and in 3/8 time, sounds reminiscent of a dumka. Remarkably, there is no sense of sadness in this music. The String Sextet was composed in 1878 and was a watershed piece in establishing Dvořák’s reputation as a composer; it, too, has a distinctly Slavonic character to the music, so has that “Dvořák sound.” The inner movements are called “Dumka” and “Furiant,” each stylizing that particular folk form. It is remarkable how consistent Dvořák’s use of those Bohemian or Slavic folk-forms remained over his career. At the same time, this work shows a masterful use of the string quartet conventions and the exciting possibilities of a richer and more sonorous lower registers with the added viola and cello.

The Borromeo Quartet  embarked on this Dvořák Project at the Gardner Museum last December. Dvořák Project, Part I featured the String Quartet no. 12 in F, op. 96, and the String Quintet no. 3 in E-flat, op. 97 (with Roger Tapping, viola); that concert is reviewed here. Dvořák Project, Part II, again at the Gardner, featured String Quartet no. 10 in E-flat, op. 51 and String Quintet no. 2 in G, op. 77 (with Nathaniel Martin, double bass); that concert is reviewed here. Since Dvořák’s œuvre has been limited far too often to the American Quartet and the New World Symphony, any concerts bringing more of his music back into the repertoire can only be applauded. That these chamber works are getting an airing by such an accomplished array of musicians only adds to the thrill and increases the applause.

From the opening notes the Borromeo Quartet played with verve and passion; it was tight and coherent throughout. In Quartet No. 13 the Adagio ma non troppo was a lovely alternation between chorale and dumka-like dance. The Dumka. Poco allegretto second movement of the Sextet was a more obvious stylization of this folk music, with its sinuous weave of accents and rising/falling dynamics. Taken together, both movements conveyed a richer idea of the musical possibilities for a dumka. In the opening movement of the Quartet, marked Allegro moderato, I thought the tempo too fast—more an Allegro energico. For me this made the beginning of this quartet less expansive, more agitated, and it reduced the contrast with the Finale (marked Allegro con fuoco). By contrast, the opening of the Sextet, also marked Allegro moderato, was a better-suited tempo, and it allowed the whole work to unfold with a greater range of colors and moods. The third movement, Furiant.  Presto, flew, while the Finale retained its predominantly Allegretto grazioso feel.

As is now their custom, the Borromeo String Quartet played from scores displayed on laptops and advanced by foot pedals. I noted that Paul Katz shared a laptop with Yeesun Kim, so the cellists were performing from a shared part.  Violist Dmitri Murrath read from a laptop brought out before the sextet, although he also used a photocopied part.  I think this was especially for the Finale; at least two of the variations in this Tema con variazioni. Allegretto grazioso, quasi andantino movement have long legato lines in the viola part, and I presume these are easier to see when the full span (I’m guessing 20-odd measures each) are visible at a time—more than would appear at one time in two pages of the score on a laptop screen. I had not considered this potential drawback to playing from a virtual score before seeing this in concert and looking at the printed music on the stand afterwards.

In the quartet, I found Kristopher Tong, second violin, overpowered by the other three voices; I cannot fault him. From where I sat his violin was facing away from me. This raises a question about seating arrangements in Calderwood Hall. Since this space is an example of “music in the round,” why do the musicians not sit wholly in the round? As is, they face the corner through which they enter and even there the sight-lines include performers’ backs. It would even out balance issues if the four executants sat in a square, facing inwards. The hall is small enough the sound can still fill the venue; the musicians can still see and interact with one another; everyone in the audience sees both face and back of those on stage, so all seats are truly equal. As an added bonus, the audience doesn’t have the cognitive dissonance of seeing laptops in front of the musicians while listening to chamber music. If this only resolved balance issues, that alone would be reason enough to pursue this seating in future concerts.

I look forward to the future concerts of this Dvořák Project.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


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  1. As the person who reviewed the previous two Dvořák concerts, I noticed the same balance problem (though I was a little more oblique with my description of what I heard). The semicircular arrangement of the ensemble works spectacularly in a space like Jordan Hall. I’m a little relieved to see I’m not the only one who has a problem with it in the square well space of Calderwood. I also thought a circular arrangement might work better.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — April 16, 2013 at 12:42 pm

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