What is new to be said about either the fabulous Borromeo Quartet or the late quartets by Bartok and Beethoven on its Sunday program? The Borromeo has been performing the Bartók quartets for a long time, and they know these craggy pieces inside and out. They have breathed new air and authority into them as the Emerson Quartet did in the early 1990s. Their first rave review in the Intelligencer came in October, 2009; many raves reviews of this ensemble playing these quartets have appeared here subsequently. In spring 2014, the foursome played all six quartets in one evening at Jordan Hall [review here]; they are ensemble-in-residence for the 22nd year at NEC. They have been reprising this exhausting feat regularly to enormous acclaim. So it was no surprise that their performance of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 was simply superb—suffused with a propulsive energy, bite, and passion from beginning to end.
The program notes describe it as “best described as organized chaos, technically and interpretatively complex for the musicians.” What an understatement. BMInt’s Brian Schuth captures its essence perfectly in his review: “Heard on a typical china-shop quartet program, the Fifth is usually a crazily disruptive bull. Heard among its siblings, it is a crowning refinement of technique and sensibility that still has a savage atavism at its heart.”
After a heart-stopping Allegro, the second movement (Adagio molto) was particularly eerie, an example of Bartok’s “night music” style—his evocation of the distant sounds of nature with chilling dissonances, imitations of natural sounds, and poignant melodies. Nicholas Kitchen played the beautiful violin melodies with great sensitivity (as he played everything else during this afternoon). The third movement is in time signatures typical of Bulgarian folk music: nine quavers in each bar in uneven groups of 4+2+3 for the main scherzo, and ten quavers in groups of 3+2+2+3 in the trio. The fourth movement Andante is reminiscent of the second movement, but with pizzicatos instead of trills. Cellist Yeesun Kim was very impressive in the fourth movement, full of cello glissandos. I have come to admire her playing more every time I hear her. She is unquestionably one of the reasons for the Borromeo’s greatness. The fifth movement began with frightening urgency, like a house on fire. This music is often quite frightening. Hearing it live certainly adds to the excitement.
We were held spellbound. Altogether it was extraordinary to sit close enough to read their computer music. Yet I fear those on the upper floors had a different sonic and personal experience in this problematic hall. It’s always worth sitting on the first level.
After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with Beethoven’s beloved String Quartet, No. 15, Op. 132 (1825), best known for its monumental middle movement, with its prayerfulness and thanksgiving for recovery from a serious illness “by a convalescent.” It’s not often a critic has tears clouding her eyes while taking notes, but this luminous performance of “Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode: Molto adagio- Andante (Feeling New Strength)” was shatteringly beautiful—full of spiritual peace, thankfulness, then almost overpowering joy. There are several theories circulating about the source of the hymns and mode used in the solemn and ethereal “Heiliger Dankgesang.” In his Beethoven biography, Jan Swafford explains that Gioseffo Zarlino, a 16th-century theorist of whom Beethoven knew, wrote: “The Lydian mode is a remedy for fatigue of the soul, and similarly, for that of the body.” Most, if not all, Beethoven biographies and studies remark on the Lydian mode having been the mode associated with healing and recovery, that, to quote biographer Lewis Lockwood, “in the strict form that was, ironically, almost unknown in the sixteenth century.” Other biographers remarked how the minor to major, dark to light progression in the quartet echoes that of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. I like what Basil Lam wrote (quoted in the program notes): “…no other composition in all Beethoven’s works shows the unintegrated contrasts of this quartet. Once he became possessed of the Heliger Dankgesang (Holy Songs of Thanks), no solution of the formal problem was available other than to surround it with sound images united on by their total diversity. The Adagio, then, is not only the central element in the five-movement structure of the Quartet, but is also its expressive heart. The movement’s form alternates varied versions of a hymnal theme of otherworldly stillness based on the ancient church modes with a more rhythmically dynamic strain marked Neue Kraft fühlend (“feeling new strength”), a technique also used in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies.”
Both the Beethoven and Bartók were astonishing. They will surely be the highlights of this summer, even after I hear another of the Borromeo concerts on this cycle. After many years with these players, I still marvel at the remarkable ensemble work, the stunning virtuosity, the beautiful sound of cellist Yeesun Kim, the exquisite technical control that enables the ensemble to play hairpin turns of mood and dynamics, and the extraordinary playing of Nicholas Kitchen, the first violinist, whose musical curiosity continually provides fascinating new insights from composers’ manuscripts, which he reads on his laptop at concerts.
The Gardner’s celebration of the Borromeo’s 25th anniversary is a particular bonanza: get tickets if you can for can July 26, and August 2. I only wish more chamber music would play at the Gardner all summer long, every summer. (Take note please, Scott Nickrenz, musical curator!) Still, this Borromeo bonanza seemed a wonderful gift to Boston on a sizzling July day.
NB: The Gardner’s restaurant is one of the stand-outs of museum dining. What a lovely place, what excellent food! Still, nothing prepared me for tenor Roland Mills in his day job as waiter who made time stand still and the eaters stop talking when, out of the blue, he sang Strauss’s “Ich Trage Meine Minne” for one table of his tables. Oh heavens, I thought, it’s going to devolve into one of those flash mobs and soon we’ll all be singing, but no. Then, soon after, he sang Bellini’s “I fervido desiderio” to two grateful ladies, and, once again, silence and awe. Who knew a waiter at such a fancy eatery was allowed to do such wonderful things? Regrettably he’s moving to California, but I hope to catch him singing in the café again before he leaves.