Since it performs so extremely generously, the enduring appeal of the Borromeo Quartet at 25 is not hard to understand or to experience. The intensely capable execution, and I do mean intensely—much of the time it’s technically unsurpassed simply as collective playing—is conveyed with a strikingly genial warmth, against a showy backdrop of the most serious historical scholarship. This combination, although some might call the latter display of historicism a shtick, is unique among working string quartets today.
Last Thursday night at Jordan Hall the Borromeo offered, for free, two late masterworks from the same year and place, indeed from the same months if not the same weeks: Schubert’s G Major Quartet (D. 887), his last, the third of a group of three, and Beethoven’s opus 131, his penultimate, the third of a group of three. The performances altogether were strongly fond, as always, fond toward the music, the audience, toward one another, strong in projecting the myriad moods. They featured amazing playing, individual and ensemble: the usual, so spoiled are we. Yet to me the concert did not feel wholly satisfying. I’m pondering why.
I have been inflicting Schubert piano and chamber music on my family the last decade, and a couple of them have become less smitten than I by his peculiarly labile determination and his determined lability. (Now we feel fierce, now bereft, now disrupted with affection, okay, time for ferocity again, forget it, settle for upset and agitation. Sorry, changed my aching mind, now melancholy, so let us melt, and melt some more, and, with fresh sadness, some more. Strife resolves. Maybe.) It can all be a bit much sometimes, irritating, and the G-major quartet may be an example, although I’m not saying it’s not also formally structured. But as my keen-eared Borromeo date concluded, “That was not legible to me.” Certainly under this group, the piece was not as crisply demarcated as in the sharp-attack, edgier, sometimes scalpel-wielding hands of (say) the Emerson and Juilliard Quartets. Presumably in reaction to some degree, the Borromeo have often shown a penchant (comparatively only) for gemütlich ensemble and gentler approaches and textures. The G-major seemed to suffer from this, to my ear, with occasional thickness and imbalance as well. When I got home I actually felt the need to reclaim my sense of orderliness (insofar as that can happen with Schubert) by digging out the Emerson’s clearer, extroverted reading.
Throughout the playing, the Borromeo’s unfolding-in-real-time musical manuscript display fascinates, as it shows the apparently nonstop rapid arcs of sketching—some great composers really do dash off their thoughts like Dickinson her poems—and not least the second-level material, the ubiquitous shorthand tremolos; the scratched crosshatching for deletions, so forceful it nearly obliterates the paper beneath; in Schubert the long and much-argued crescendo/decrescendo/accent marks. Before the Beethoven, first violin Nicholas Kitchen explained in absorbing detail the 19 dynamic levels the score specifies (a mere couple of decibels each, maybe less, by my math). But he made no mention, not even a passing ‘of course as we all recall,’ that these gradations were finely reckoned within the fine ear memory of someone who hadn’t heard a sound for years, and only a very little sound for over a decade.
Opus 131 started promisingly, unspooling that long slow fugue, ‘the most melancholy sentiment ever expressed in music,’ as Wagner put it. Presently, as the movements proceed almost without break, their textures too, while showing more sureness and destination than the 26-year-younger Schubert, became momentarily opaque. In fact a couple of times I thought I heard the Borromeo playing unravel somewhat, which would be a first.
The two pieces on this program have a backstory, context intertwined and overlapping, mostly well-known to us amateur music history types, and I was certain the historically savvy Kitchen would get into it. But not a word, and a pity of missed opportunity. Now, I’m a sucker for cultural history and coincidences and proximities of greatness, more than most perhaps, but the details are arguably interesting and important to know not only for music appreciators but markedly so for serious student musicians, who were numerous in attendance. (The two ovations were pierced with rock-concert whistles.) In Vienna, Beethoven had set the standards for both eccentricity and greatness, of course, and his shy cross-town junior neighbor and likely occasional acquaintance Schubert hoped to be, in some respects, Beethoven’s heir. In what were to be the last few years of each man, greatness and posterity were on Schubert’s mind (in his last months he visited Haydn’s grave), while at the same time he planned new music lessons to improve his little-exercised contrapuntal chops. Beethoven already knew greatness and previewed posterity. By 1826 his new Ninth Symphony had premiered and Schubert had finished his own Great Symphony ‘response’ to it. He’d also heard Beethoven’s late quartets thus far; after 131, which the composer himself felt was the best and closest to perfection of his quartets, Schubert said, ‘What’s left for us to write?’ Opus 131 had just been completed that spring, and some blocks and a few weeks away, as I say, Schubert did the same with D. 887.
The following March, Beethoven died. He’d been given a batch of Schubert songs, responding ‘In this one dwells a divine spark.’ Schubert was a torchbearer at the funeral. Then 20 months later, he too died. A few days prior, he had asked for Opus 131 to be played; it was the last music he heard. One of the performers remarked, ‘The King of Harmony had sent the King of Song a friendly bidding to the crossing.’ Schubert asked to be buried alongside his revered elder, and was.