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Borromeo Bartokathon: Exhilaration or Overkill?


Gotterdammerung or even Star Wars it’s not, but the Borromeo Quartet’s own intimate, bristly marathon brought energetic precision to all six of Bartok’s string quartets, as they have done repeatedly over a span of 30 years. Encompassing so much of the composer’s fascinating career in a concert with two brief intermissions that ran to nearly three and a half hours of dense music demanded intensity for performers as well as listeners. These polished veterans (ensemble-in-residence at both New England Conservatory and the Gardner) have pedaled this cycle often before—in Jordan Hall (May 2014), and just two nights ago at the Library of Congress. The Emersons and other ensembles accomplish same in one sitting, too, nowadays.

I first heard the cycle live in the late 1960s, in a Juilliard Quartet performance at the Library of Congress, grouped as I dimly recall, in the typical halves: 1-3-5 and 2-4-6. Even heard at such comparative leisure, the Juilliard gave us much to absorb and reflect upon in the quartets’ arching sweep: the (1909) First quartet’s Straussian post-Romanticism and Debussy-flecked Impressionism; the Second’s emergence of the stark peasant music Bartok had meticulously recorded over wide travels; the Third’s hugely concentrated terse experiments with arch form; the Fourth’s sonic breakthroughs with pizzicato, col legno, and deeply integrated, infinitely variegated rhythmic hooks; structural homages to Beethoven in the richly experimental five-movement Fourth and Fifth; a return to romanticism and a farewell to Europe in the reflective Sixth (1939). It was with a certain confidence and reverence that the audience returned, refreshed and expectant, for the second round.

Why do they do it? Reasons of economy (time, money, tight scheduling) come into play. Yes, ego and pride, too: they do it because they can. Ambitious, accomplished groups continue to push the power envelope, like runners routinely cracking the four-minute—make that 3:45-mile, iron chefs topping each other serving up multi-course tasting menus, and other forms of extreme sports and exhibitionism. It’s all so very exhilarating and au courant, but are consumers up to the challenge? Are our lives now so busy that we relish and muster special reserves, capable of speed-listening to such a compressed musical sequence? Is it no longer too much to expect an audience fully to appreciate and digest such a cycle in a single sitting? When does TMI overwhelm our musical experiences? One advantage: the audience, exposed to the aesthetic sweep and historic panorama may gain a clearer sense of Bartok’s development from conservatory rebel to iconoclastic genius. Disadvantages: a sense of compression, hurry, miniaturization, even caricature (think 30-minute Shakespeare), so that while the pieces are neither bowdlerized nor rushed, the experience proves mentally exhausting.

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

My reviewer’s trepidation proved somewhat prescient, if perhaps overcautious. The Borromeo smoothly navigated the First’s gentle legato passages, the grainy “wax cylinder” violin melodies, the dynamic transitions and suave burlesque of the Allegro, with keen contrapuntal duos tossed between violinists Nick Kitchen and Kris Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim. The Second ran tetchy, restless, mercurial, barbaric, with nods to the Viennese malaise of Berg’s Lyric Suite), and with a final funereal cell/motivic Lento. The lightning-bolt third (13 minutes) was properly ditzy, crabbed, mathematical, its four movements packed into an ogee arch, a motivic kaleidoscope. The stunning fourth romped and glittered, its bold bookends framing fragile, tensile internal movements: Prestissimo with mutes hushedly traced shooting-star glissandi; Kim took the Non troppo lento Kaddish with resonant gravitas; the pizzicato wound up a Klee-like ‘twittering machine.’

While the concert paid tribute not just to Bartok’s organic growth (picture a speed video of a flowering multi-bloomed amaryllis), but also to the Borromeo’s energy, concentration and stamina, the mature audience at the Gardner, exhibiting fewer of these traits, had thinned its ranks by a third for the final pairing. Too bad: fully risen into their zone, the Borromeo brilliantly played the late quartets. (My notes read: ‘brilliant!’) After the Fifth’s dancing Allegro swayed from jagged to lilting and back, there came a 30-second hush (and a rare tuning) before the church-organ chorale of the Adagio molto brought out impishness in the ever-smiling, tow-headed Kitchen – one wonders whether Bartok’s role for him a lark ascending, or a mosquito buzzing in the nave? And the Sixth: from the lone viola’s opening mesto theme statement, it’s a dreamy recollection told and retold, with asymmetrical asides in a lopsided, Good Soldier Schweik March and woozy Burletta before the fourth, final mesto returns—haunting, tapering, bereft, into a Shostakovich abyss. Here my notes get crabbed and confused—but perhaps you’ll forgive an old reviewer if he drifted a bit?

Our interview with Kristopher Tong is here.

Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine (Chicago) and the New York City Jazz Record.

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  1. Readers: the Juilliard Quartet’s Bartok Cycle at LOC were (as memory [dis]serves) performed in two distinct concerts, probably on successive days! FB

    Comment by Fred Bouchard — January 6, 2016 at 8:59 pm

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