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A Summer Trio for a Quartet


The Borromeo Quartet’s summer concerts at Gardner Museum have highlighted my Boston staycations over many years. The plan for the latest three-concert iteration was to juxtapose several of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues with one of the opus 59 quartets of Beethoven. Sunday’s opener added György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, Métamorphoses nocturnes; the subsequent Sundays (August 7th  and 14th) will include quartets of Ravel and Thomas Adès (composer in residence at the Boston Symphony).

Three Bach Preludes and Fugues from Book One of the Well-Tempered Klavier, that Nicholas Kitchen, the first violinist, transcribed for string quartet—C-sharp Major, C-sharp Minor, and G Major—opened the concert. The two violins (Kitchen and Christopher Tong) had a field day with the soprano melodies, and the violist (Mai Motobuchi) took a number of star turns throughout. The fugue in C-sharp Minor was both funereal and majestic; the G Major Prelude was jaunty and upbeat. All offered illuminating, colorful revisits of beloved pieces which keyboard (and some harp) players have known in very different incarnations. It reminded me of well-known black and white films or photos, suddenly colorized.

In the Borromeo’s riveting execution, Ligeti’s dreamlike first quartet held the audience spellbound. Written in Budapest in 1953-54, when Bartók’s Sixth Quartet was a decade old, it was not premiered until May 8, 1958 in Vienna, a year and a half after the composer left Hungary. “The work had been too challenging for presentation back home, but for Ligeti, who by the time of its première had worked on three electronic pieces in Cologne, it was not challenging enough. Though he implicitly legitimized it by calling his next quartet “No. 2,” he did not encourage further performances,” Paul Griffiths wrote in his excellent notes on a ECM CD (featuring two Ligeti String Quartets and Barber’s Adagio for Strings). In the Borromeo’s hands, it sounded brand new and certainly “challenging enough” with its the busy polyphony, its use of bowing above the fingerboard, harmonics, quarter tones, sul ponticello  and pizzicato glissandi, in which the string is snapped against the fingerboard. The works transforms a continuous series of changing character pieces (the “metamorphoses” of the title) that range from eerie, flickering “night music” to a lament, parodies of folk music, a swaggering march, into a dizzying kaleidoscope of sound. The very high harmonics at end had my hairs standing on end.  The influence of Ligeti’s early hero, his fellow Hungarian, Béla Bartók, is everywhere present. Although Ligeti had limited access to music from outside of Hungary as he composed this quartet, references to Stravinsky and Berg, and use of waltzes, gypsy music, and jazz abound. This was a spooky, unforgettable realization

For their first installmetn, the Borromeos played the first of Beethoven’s Op. 59 Quartets, the Razumovsky in F Major (1806) benefited from extraordinarily seasoned and gifted players having the chance to play a beloved work they clearly knew inside and out. All four read the music from scores on their laptops.  Nicholas Kitchen’s read his from a copy of Beethoven’s original manuscript from the Berlin State Museum. This first, longest and most massive of the Razumovskys, like its fellows from Op. 59 quartets, uses a jaunty Russian theme culled from a selection of folk songs, as requested by Count Razumovsky.

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

What I didn’t know about until I re-opened Jan Swafford’s “Beethoven,” was how influential Beethoven’s partner, champion and inspiration, the violinist Schuppanzigh, turned out to be.  Carl Cherny described him as a “short, fat, pleasure-loving man… one of the best violin players of that time… unrivaled in quartet playing, a very good concert artist and the best orchestra conductor of his day… No one knew how to enter into the spirit of this music better than he.” Swafford posits that “the presence of Schuppanzigh… allowed Beethoven to take quartets wherever he wanted to go with them… This portly, silly-looking violinist was the indispensable partner in Beethoven’s remaking of the idiom.”

The Borromeo’s take on the third movement, Adagio molto e mesto (very slow and sad), carried a Shakespearean grandeur.  The longest and most complex slow movement Beethoven had written since the funeral march in the Eroica, it reminds one of desperation of Florestan in Fidelio.

Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms all loved the Opus 59 quartets. Wagner in his last years listened to them with rapt attention.  I have never heard a better interpretation than this Sunday’s, and I eagerly await the next two installments.

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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