in: Reviews

June 17, 2014

Borromeos and Lesser: Ineffable Performances

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Borromeo String Quartet (file photo)

Borromeo String Quartet (file photo) 

Is Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s 33rd season its best yet? It’s tempting to get a pied-à-terre in Rockport just to be able to attend as many concerts as one wished without having to slog through insane traffic to get there. The evening was unseasonably chilly, prompting Artistic Director David Deveau to ask from the stage, “Isn’t autumn great in New England?” He proudly announced this was the 19th consecutive year the Borromeo had performed there.

Last Thursday’s concert was a reprise of two pieces the Borromeo Quartet—arguably Boston’s best foursome—played quite recently in Jordan Hall (on separate occasions) and the Ravel Duo, played frequently by its first violin, Nicholas Kitchen and his cellist wife, Yeesun Kim.

The successes of this quartet—Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violin; Mai Motobuchi, viola; and Yeesun Kim, cello—can hardly be news to the readers of these pages. The quartet’s traversal of the six Bartók quartets in one evening at Jordan Hall (BMInt review here) and its appearance on First Monday with cellist Laurence Lesser playing Schubert’s String Quintet are only two recent highlights of an extraordinary run. For Rockport the ensemble performed Bartok’s Fourth Quartet and the Schubert again. For those who missed the Jordan Hall performances, this occasioned pure joy.

The Ravel Sonata for Violin and Piano, composed between 1920 and 1922, began life as a commission by the musicologist and critic Henry Prunières, who asked ten prominent composers to write short works in memory of Claude Debussy, who had died of cancer in 1918. (The others were Bela Bartok, Manuel de Falla, Eugene Gossens, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Albert Roussel, Erik Satie, Florent Schmitt and Igor Stravinsky). Ravel apparently got quite worked up, and it appeared as a one-movement Duo in the December 1920 issue of “la Revue musical” and was performed in a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendante on January 24, 1921. Ravel wrote that this Sonata “marks a turning point in the evolution of my career. In it, thinness of texture is pushed to an extreme. Harmonic charm is renounced, coupled with an increasing emphasis on melody.” The full four-movement Sonata for Violin and Cello, dedicated “To the Memory of Claude Debussy,” received its first performance in Paris in 1922.

Kitchen’s and Kim’s very fine performance seemed to place Ravel in a different, more exotic sound-world than in his previous works. The excellent program notes by Sandra Hyslop point out that Ravel had met Bartók several times and was familiar with Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello. “The hints,” she writes, “of eastern European folk tunes and dances, modal-scale elements and robust string playing suggest the direction that Ravel had chosen in order to renounce ‘harmonic charm.’ ” The execution was perfectly timed, with spirited solos, high violin harmonics, pizzicatos that were sometimes very fast and at other times banjo-like. The cello had plenty of important solos, and was equally impressive when playing emotionally in tune with the violin. These two carry this piece in their bones, giving it their very impressive all.

Written in 1928, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 has the reputation as being his best and his most difficult. It is designed in five expansive, symmetrically arranged movements that function as a palindrome; the very slow movement III acts as the kernel, with the fourth movement a free variation on movement II, and the first and fifth movement using the same thematic material. Yet, as Bartók himself said, “It’s no good asking why I wrote a passage as I did… I can only reply that I wrote down what I felt.”

It was obvious from the first notes that the Borromeo knows this piece inside out, and they can take all kinds of risks and have them work. The fourth movement, all wild pizzicato, was sensational, as was the prestissimo second movement. What a wonderful introduction to the Bartók Quartets! What precision playing!

The concert ended with one our favorite pieces of chamber music, Schubert’s magisterial Quintet for Strings in C Major, D. 956, written shortly before the composer’s death in 1828, and shortly after he had written and performed his last three great piano sonatas (exactly 100 years before the Bartok Quartet No. 4). Schubert’s brother Ferdinand sold the manuscript to the publishing house Diabelli in 1829, and the full score appeared, finally, in 1853. The first public performance was in 1850 at the Musikverein in Vienna. As the program notes say so pithily and well, “The third and fourth movements depart from and return to the tonic key of C major, in which Schubert infused throughout the Quintet all of life’s passions and complexities, beauties and sorrows.”

Joining as second cello, Laurence Lesser performed his part, whether it was extended pizzicato passages or heartbreaking melodies, with stature and beauty. From beginning to end, Nicholas Kitchen was extraordinary, playing like he was on fire. The other three Borromeos, added their unusually rich inner and lower voices to one of the most exquisite musical experiences I expect to have this summer. Performed at this level, the piece bestows 45 minutes of grace and ineffable awe. Enthusiastic Bravi to all!

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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