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Concord, Consonance and Dissonance


Borromeo String Quartet (file photo)
Borromeo String Quartet (file photo)

What is left to say about the Borromeo String Quartet, who have collected praise, honors, awards, residencies (in their 25th season at the Gardner and their 22nd year teaching at NEC), with a huge following in Boston alone?  Everyone’s favorite local quartet dove deep into late Beethoven Sunday in the third of four programs this season of the Concord Chamber Music Societ

The afternoon began as the affable first violin Nicholas Kitchen explained how “profoundly exciting” it is to see the full autograph score (which we saw projected), and how that led to more involvement with manuscripts. “A lot of personality comes from this page,” he recounted, telling of the thrill of being able to play the last of Beethoven’s quartets directly from the composer’s own hand.

The rest of the talk was devoted to the astounding levels of dynamics, approaching 20(!): Beethoven systematically used fff, ffmo, forte, for, fo, and f (for “standard loud”), then p, underlined once, underlined twice, pp, also underlined once and twice; finally, to make sure things get quiet enough, ppmo, ppp, and ppp underlined once and twice. A similar system was employed for staccato, marked for four types. Seeing these in the manuscripts, Kitchen explained, gives the quartet the sense that they are “part of Beethoven’s workshop.”

It’s hard to discuss the first five movements of Opus 130 when so much of the excitement and controversy about the quartet reside in its last movements. But here are a few thoughts as I listened (one can never hear too much of the late quartets). The second movement, “Presto,” is at two minutes the shortest of all Beethoven scherzi in the quartets. It received an extremely impressive performance. One of my favorite movements in all the quartets is the next, Andante con moto, ma non troppo, which, okay, like every movement that afternoon, was given thoughtful, beautifully expressive playing. The Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo featured gorgeous, intense work by Kitchen; my only complaint was that balances often seemed off, the middle strings somewhat muffled.

The players chose to conclude the work with the notoriously difficult 741-bar Grosse Fuge and delivered a thrilling reading. This behemoth movement, often described as a multi-movement work in 10 sections, is the largest and most radical of Beethoven’s fugal finales. Audiences of the time were upset upon first hearing it, to say the least, and players deemed it ridiculously difficult. Beethoven wrote a lighter, less dissonant finale, which pleased his publisher, his audiences and players, but it makes the quartet a decidedly different experience. The Grosse Fuge was separated from its birth environment and given its own opus number, 133, and has remained an enormously challenging avant-garde composition. 

After intermission, during which the large crowd stood around the stage examining the laptops, the quartet gave a refined performance of Opus 131, the tragic String Quartet No. 14, in C-sharp Minor. The presto, in particular, was full of compelling playing and panache.

Throughout both quartets, Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim were absolutely riveting, and violist Mai Motobuchi played her solos with distinction and personality. Second violinist Kristopher Tong was unfortunately not clearly audible from where I sat.

BSO violinist Wendy Putnam’s CCMS concerts have been first-rate, and filled to capacity with appreciative listeners over many years. Next come works of Honegger and Reger along with the Schubert String Quintet on Sunday, March 8 at 3 pm.

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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