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Intense DSCH + Tchaikovsky @ ISG


The Boromeo in laptop circle (Eli Akerstein)
The Boromeo in laptop “circle” (Eli Akerstein)

The Borromeo String Quartet returned to Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Sunday with Dmitri Shostakovich’s No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s No. 2 in F Major, Op. 22; a previous such paring was reviewed here). This remarkably compact program showed surprising connections between the two works, and offered concentrated, vital playing from one of the world’s best ensembles.

 Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 is the best known and most frequently played of his 15, though its origins and intent are shrouded in ambiguity; this site explores the various motivations that have been attributed to the work. Whatever its inspirations, the work does seem like an artistic summing up. Its five interconnected movements visit many of Shostakovich’s characteristic sound worlds, from the solemn counterpoint of the first movement to the militaristic percussiveness of the second and fourth movements, the sardonic waltz of the third movement, and the heartbreaking lament of the final movement. It also quotes some of Shostakovich’s greatest works, with motifs taken from the first and fifth Symphonies, the first cello concerto, the infamous opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District which first ran the composer afoul of the Soviet authorities, and the harrowing second piano trio. (There are other musical quotes, from a Russian folk song and I thought I detected hints of Stravinsky’s masterpiece L’histoire du Soldat.) And the work is permeated like no other with his signature musical motto, the four notes D, E-flat, C, and B-natural which in German musical notation spell out D-eS-C-H, the initials of his Cyrillic name Д.Ш. (For more on D-S-C-H, read here) This motif opens the first movement and trades in canon between the four instruments, and the first theme of the third movement scherzo consists of five repetitions of D-D-S-C-H. Thus the Eighth Quartet summarizes the composer’s oeuvre in a compact 20-25 minutes.

 The Borromeo Quartet explored Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets at the Gardner Museum in 2007 and 2008, and this music has been a staple of its repertoire since. The Eighth Quartet showed off the players’ characteristic blend of exemplary ensemble, tonal lushness, and penetrating intelligence. The problems in those areas I noted in one of the ensemble’s first performances in the new hall (discussed here) were not evident on Sunday. The foursome arranged themselves around their MacBook Pro laptops facing inward, and the chords were beautifully balanced, ringing with the overtones that I have cherished from their performances in more conventional halls. But in the smaller space of Calderwood, you could watch the interactions among the players from up close. Violist Mai Motobuchi and first violinist Nicholas Kitchen leaned into responded to each other as beckoned by their musical lines. Cellist Yeesun Kim anchored the blistering attack of the lower-string chords which announced the second movement; her rich cello tone provided backbone for the overtones and partials without overwhelming them, and her visible grins betrayed her deep and abiding love for this music. Second violinist Kristopher Tong watched his partners with hawk-like intensity, matching Kitchen in parallel octaves in some junctures, and seizing Kitchen’s lead at others. The quartet seemed intimately familiar with each of the musical quotations, bringing each out in the midst of complicated textures with remarkable clarity, and captured all of the shifting moods of the five movements without missing a beat. I can’t imagine a more brutal, harrowing account of the second movement, a snarkier approach to the third movement, or more moving yet unsentimental plaintiveness in the fourth movement. And the fifth movement was a high point for its breathtakingly hushed dynamics and naked vulnerability. The Borromeo Quartet gave the Shostakovich the feel of an epic journey, a Dostoevsky novel in under half an hour.

 Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2 in F from 1874 heralded his first artistic maturity (the first piano concerto premiered later that year, yet at that point he had not written four of his symphonies, most of his operas, or any of his ballets). Nearly a century, two world wars, a political revolution, and at least one artistic revolution separate this quartet from the Shostakovich, and one might have thought to separate this quartet from the Shostakovich with a substantial intermission. But the Borromeo Quartet returned to the space after the briefest of tuning breaks. It became clear why they opted for such a quick segué in the slow introduction to the first movement. In the Borromeos’ hands, Tchaikovsky’s harmonic ambiguity and melodic fragmentation come across as intimately tied to Shostakovich’s more astringent compositional style. In that introduction, I half expected Motobuchi to play a succession of D-S-C-H motifs. The incessantly repeated rhythmic pattern of the second movement Scherzo, reminiscent of the “Fate Motif” rhythm from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, tied nicely to the urgent repetitions of the middle movements of the Shostakovich, and the fugue-like segment in the finale was rendered with the same contrapuntal clarity as the canon of Shostakovich’s first movement. At the same time, the Borromeo Quartet luxuriated in Tchaikovsky’s intoxicating Romantic sound world, finishing the first movement exposition with big-boned double-stopped virtuosity, milking the pregnant pauses and slow burn gathering of momentum in the third movement to perfection, and tore into an impossibly fast, accelerating coda in the fourth and final movement with frenetic exuberance, but without losing control of ensemble and tuning. I can’t think of another group that does so many things so musically and so well, or that could pull off this juxtaposition as skillfully.

 The Gardner Museum concert series resumes next Sunday with a recital by cellist Cicely Parnas and pianist Noreen Polera. The Borromeo Quartet performed a completely different program at New England Conservatory on Monday night (Franck Piano Quintet and Tchaikovsky Sextet for Strings), then decamp for the western US for most of the spring. They will return in the summer to celebrate their silver anniversary with three programs at the Gardner Museum, pairing late Beethoven quartets with masterworks of Bartók, Shostakovich, and Schubert.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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