Boston has generated and nurtured quite a few major string quartets over the years, going all the way back to the Kneisel (1885 – 1917), and there is a strong temptation to be blasé about the happy situation, but when the current dean of quartet kultur, the Borromeo takes the stage, one is likely to witness challenging insight. Thursday’s performance at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport made such a case. Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello, together with pianist Donald Berman, shared their exploratory takes on Bach and Beethoven and a major premiere.
The program opened with the first eight numbers (from C major through E-flat minor) from Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, BWV 846-53, in Kitchen’s transcriptions. We don’t know how many other quartet arrangements of these well-known and beloved preludes and fugues exist, but on paper, Kitchen’s were keen to keep the separate musical lines of both preludes and fugues in sharp focus. Needless to say, the performances accomplished exactly that, and even in the more sober minor-mode ones displayed a sense of fun. A distinct feature of the Borromeo’s kept dynamics down, with very few notable climaxes. That’s not to say that the playing was not varied: we noted rich sonorities in the C major, sharp accents and storminess in the C minor, a country-fiddling affect in the C-sharp major prelude, followed by a perky fugue; a dreamy melancholy in the C-sharp minor, a skipping playfulness in the D major prelude and a strong invocation of the French overture style in the fugue. The D minor prelude unspooled like a somber jig; the E-flat major prelude gestured Corelli-like, and to say that the fugue was perky is also to invoke its use as the inspiration for the tune of PDQ Bach’s Sanka Cantata, which also parodied a commercial jingle. Finally, the E-flat minor prelude wept in a Romantically premonitory way, while the concluding fugue felt more stately and dignified than sad.
One bemusing aspect of transferring these pieces to strings is that while Bach’s purpose in writing them was in part to demonstrate how a perfectly tempered (and tuned) keyboard instrument allowed the graceful resolution of even sharply clashing harmonies, string players are accustomed to modifying their intonation for expressive purposes so that, for example, a G sharp is slightly sharper than an A flat, though in a keyboard’s equal temperament they must needs be the same [except in certain special systems with split black notes]. As a consequence, some of those clashing harmonies take on even more pungency. By stressing the “stringiness” of the instruments, Kitchen and the rest of the quartet have therefore in a sense stood Bach on his head; but that’s OK, the effect was as enlightening as it was engaging.
The piano quintet, invented as a stand-alone medium by Schumann, has held special appeal for American composers seeking to express their biggest thoughts. The canon of great American examples includes the entries by Chadwick, Foote, Beach, Hadley, Quincy Porter, Ornstein, Cadman, Carpenter, Piston, Riegger, Finney, Persichetti, Adams, Harbison, Carter, Tower and Bolcom, among many others. To this list may now be added The Worlds Revolve, a four-movement work by Elena Ruehr. The title, and the titles of the movements, are all taken from the last two lines of the fourth of T.S. Eliot’s Preludes, which the composer, introducing the piece from the stage, said was influential on her and evocative of her youth in Upper Michigan. That said, she allowed as how the last two lines, “The worlds revolve like ancient women/Gathering fuel in vacant lots” had a more urban vibe.
We have been following the career of Ruehr, who teaches at MIT, with great interest, and it is characteristic of her methodology that even in abstract works she takes inspiration from images, whether in the real world or as evoked by literature and art. So it was here: The first movement, same title as the quintet as a whole, uses the rhythm of the words to create something like a folk melody, introduced by the piano and then developed more or less monothematically. This is decorated by the turns and trills that are so characteristic of her writing that, like Mendelssohn, you always know when a piece is by her. At the same time, the writing also contains strains suggestive of Eastern European or even Middle Eastern expression, even a passage very much like one in the Ornstein quintet. The overall effect is hypnotically seductive. “Like Ancient Women,” the slow movement, is blocky and motivic, statuesque, with florid twining passages suggestive of vines (Ruehr’s image, that). The scherzoid movement, “Gathering Fuel,” the most formally rounded of the set, juxtaposes crackly piano licks with more stentorian “woody” blocks. The finale, “In Vacant Lots,” opens with “big city” chords and accents reminiscent of the urban modernism of the 1920s. This rather complicated movement presents a variety of disparate threads, thoughts and streams, tied together by the players’ formidable willpower, building to a major climax and then trailing off into a dreamy vacancy (the image in our minds was of a particular city—Detroit—with its great urban vitality turned now into vast expanses of vacant lots being reclaimed by the prairie). Ruehr told us later that the piece is full of gnarly complexities, but the performance was as free and natural as it could be, with special kudos to Berman, one of Boston’s leading new-music specialists, who rolled off the bravura (though fully integrated) piano part with the finesse for which he is justly famed.
After intermission, the quartet returned for a typically thoughtful and nearly experimental reading of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 12 in E-flat, op. 127. The first of the “late quartets” that many consider the epitome of Beethoven’s art, it sounds as novel in contrast to his middle-period style, as the Eroica symphony does in contrast to the master’s earlier orchestral style. It certainly finds a different take on the key of E-flat, which Beethoven had previously made the vehicle for assertive oratory such as the Eroica and the Emperor Concerto. In the first movement, the performers dissected each craggy and lyrical phrase and turned it over before stitching them all together and setting them forth with their customary sonic opulence, while maintaining the distinctiveness of each voice. The slow variations movement began with intense passion under excruciating dynamic control and restraint, creating with the voicing a kaleidoscopic image that yet coalesced into a single shaft of light. The theme and first variation, and generally throughout, flowed as a single building idea, with a brusque interruption for the second variation, which the Borromeo took almost like a country dance. With the third and subsequent variations (there are six) the audience was treated to silky smooth sonorities, especially from Kitchen, and a series of electrifying pianissimos. The scherzo, bouncy and rough-textured, as it should be, featured phrase endings rising as questions. The finale passed by with robust good humor and glossy polish.