in: Reviews

October 7, 2013

Unadorned Acoustics Sounding Lush

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented the Borromeo String Quartet on Sunday in the fourth installment of a concert series dedicated to the chamber music of Antonin Dvořák,  featuring two late works by the composer, both written in the 1890s: the String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op 105, and the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87 with Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen.

The A-flat Major String Quartet, one of the last two the composer wrote, is a summery, pastoral piece that seems particularly well-suited to the Borromeo’s temperament.  As an ensemble, they tend to favor rich sonorities and the darker hues of the instruments, as well as extraordinarily unified textural clarity. In the intimate, unadorned acoustics of Calderwood Hall, these tendencies lent themselves to a surprisingly lush interpretation of the work. From the first measures of the gentle opening adagio, the group’s colors evoked bucolic greens, the sonic equivalent of taking a long walk through the Czech countryside, and a spirit easily suggested by the tone and structure of the music itself. In each movement, there was fascinating indirectness to the ensemble’s approach—unexpected but not at all unsatisfying. Despite the cantabile indication of the third movement, for instance, the group didn’t sing the piece as much as paint it with deep brushstrokes, creating a resonant portrait of the music’s mood.  The non troppo of the last movement’s Allegro was taken to mean an easy yet bouncy pace that gave it the feel of a Breughel-esque country dance. Even toward the end, when the ensemble dug into the coda with stunning energy, it was still less Bohemian fire from the core of the music and more bright Alpine sunshine illuminating the music’s atmosphere.  The one time that the Borromeo’s luscious tone-colors felt somewhat inadequate was in the third movement. While the trio’s legato nature was well-served, the scherzo’s Gypsy gestures and jolting hemiolas suffered somewhat from a lack of bite.  This Romany side of the composer’s personality is less evident in this work than in others, however, and the performance was, as a whole, smilingly bright and dynamic.

After a brief intermission, three members of the quartet were joined by Jumppanen for the E-flat Major Piano Quartet. Along with his nimble technique, Jumppanen’s ability to match sonorities with the strings was simply astounding. Throughout the work, the group sounded not like three stringed instruments and a piano, but rather some magnificent, at times otherworldly meta-instrument. Again, though, from an interpretive standpoint, the feeling was more of musicians painting sonic representations of the music’s emotions rather than playing the emotions themselves. To be sure, Dvořák’s music is often bogged down by less-than-substantive gestural writing that does not have much affect to it at all, primarily in development sections and transitions; and it was the remarkable colors and sheer energy of the performance that made these sections of the work, especially the outer movements, compelling.  The subtle obliqueness of the musical approach was most evident, however, in the second movement—a beautifully temperamental work that, while certainly played with commitment, could have benefited from a bit more Romantic wrenching. On the other hand, the most engaging execution of the evening was of the third movement; one could imagine it depicting a quartet of Grinzinger Schrammel musicians who, getting a bit moody at the end of the night, start to play dirges to the dark grapevine-laden hills, go off the emotional deep end in the trio, and then find their focus again at the Huerigen, though still a little tipsy, by the end. This may be a somewhat fanciful narrative on the part of this reviewer; but, regardless, the musicians’ ability to take the listeners on a journey rife with musical nuance and variance was brought most brilliantly to the fore. Rarely has Dvořák sounded so sunny.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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