As programmed by the Borromeo Quartet at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall on Sunday afternoon, a pairing of quartets by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky seemed just right. Best known for their monumental “public” (and occasionally bombastic) symphonies, both composers studied assiduously the chamber music of their classical forebears Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven and reserved their most refined expression and technical ingenuity for the “private” medium of the string quartet. The seamless ensemble of the Borromeo players (Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tang, violins, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello), their carefully thought out attention to every detail of articulation, phrasing, dynamics, and texture contributed to an overall sense of stylistic rightness in performances that were both probing and illuminating.
Shostakovich composed his first quartet in 1938 and his second in 1944. The third, Op. 73 in D major, was composed in 1946 when he was forty and had already composed nine symphonies. The terrible events of the war years are reflected in the programmatic (and politically loaded) titles he initially gave to the five movements, only to withdraw them after the first performance: “Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm;” “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation;” “The forces of war unleashed;” “Homage to the dead;” “The eternal question: Why? and for what?” Starting out with a cheerful affirmation of F major, the clarity of the opening theme is marred by “wrong note” pitches that become more and more strident. A second theme introduces a spooky version of C major. The Borromeo presented these with an ironic insouciance that contrasted with the dense counterpoint and accelerated frenzy that followed. The fearful second movement opened with the viola marking time against a frenetic, off-key waltz in the first violin, joined by the second violin and finally the cello. Suddenly the texture shifted from angular counterpoint to ghostly detached chords as the waltz changed to a march. In a series of outbursts, the waltz reasserted itself before the movement died away on a shimmering dissonance.
In the scherzo-like third movement, double, triple, and quadruple chords marked the regular alternation of duple and triple meter with relentless insistence, pierced occasionally by snatches of sarcastic melody. The Borromeo’s unforced rhythmic precision carried it all off with panache. The fourth movement relies on traditional funeral motives to convey the theme of mourning. In slow, triple meter, a passacaglia-like theme, of the type traditionally used in laments, was introduced at the beginning by the cello, viola, and second violin in unison, and repeated six more times in a series of variations that most often were accompanied by the muffled drumbeat of a funeral march. Following immediately, the finale burst in on us as a weirdly twisted dance, skirting F major with modal tones reflecting Shostakovich’s interest in Jewish folk music; a frenzied, and dissonant, climax recalled the themes of the fourth movement lament before dying away to a smoothly consonant conclusion.
Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet was composed in 1871 for a concert of his own chamber music. In contrast to the “sour” notes of Shostakovich’s F major, the chords of Tchaikovsky’s D major opening are smoothly consonant, although enlivened by offbeat rhythms and sweetened by a major-minor ambiguity with echoes of Schubert. As the opening chords became enriched by running passages in two or more voices, the Borromeo’s skillful pacing clarified the transitions between sections, building tension to a triumphant return of the opening music and an accelerated conclusion. The famous Andante cantabile, based on a folksong, was played with winning simplicity and exquisite tone color, while the percussive rhythms of the Scherzo brought us closer to the sound world of Shostakovich. The Finale was a rollicking dance with a profusion of syncopated themes leading to a final triumph of massive chords.