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Depth and Prowess from the Borromeo


The third of three consecutive Sunday concerts at the Gardner by the Borromeo String Quartet followed the three-part pattern: three transcriptions by Nicholas Kitchen of preludes and fugues from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a modern work, in the form of Arcadiana by Thomas Adès, and the third of Beethoven’s Op. 59 “Rasumovsky” Quartets, the C major.

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier holds a place in the development of Western music similar to that of Euclid’s “Elements” in mathematics. Euclid did not invent geometry, but he organized and formalized the many disparate elements that preceded him, added many theorems of his own, and laid the foundation for further development of the subject. Certainly Bach did likewise for music, and it all begins with the C Major prelude.

Most noticeable in Kitchen’s memorable transcription of the C Major was how emotional it sounded compared to hearing it on the keyboard. The effect came in large part from the humanizing voice of Yeesun Kim’s cello underlining the simple repeated structure throughout. The ensuing fugue had great dignity, the voices clearly delineated and given a third dimension – a mysterious depth, like moving from plane to solid geometry. The toccata-like C Minor prelude began with Kitchen’s first violin and the viola of Mai Motobuchi, given extra drama by repeated cello accents and commentary by Kristopher Tong’s second violin. The E-flat Minor prelude had a sarabande-like solemnity, tender, wistful and chaste. The fugue built magnificently, the four independent instruments showing the voices clearly, building the complexity, the fugue simultaneously remaining static yet expanding and growing upward in place.

Arcadiana consists of seven short sections, loosely arrayed around the famous Poussin painting portraying shepherds discovering a tomb inscribed with the words Et in Arcadia ego, “I, too, in Arcadia.” Alternating water and land, the sections form a suite with the unspoken eighth place—the here and now—implied. Motobuchi’s viola gave us the swaying and rocking of a gondola in Venezia notturno, the violins providing eerie high-pitched night sounds, with ominous pizzicato from Kim’s cello. The second section, Das klinget, evoking Papageno’s bells from Mozart’s Magic flute, arrived with exciting expectancy; invisible birds and bells seemingly engaged in tentative dialog. Auf dem wasser, which is based on Schubert (who himself was inspired by a poem) meditates on the passing of time and loss, here to culminated very effectively in a turmoil of pain. The foursome gave the “dead center” of the work (Adès’ words), Et … (tango mortale), based on the inscription of the tomb, a vivid grotesqueness, but also interpreted it with an exacting precision and style, at once tinged with mannerism and expressionism. The effect—complex and powerful. The ensuing L’Embarquement, based on Watteau’s painting of lovers setting sail for the Island of love and also on Couperin’s short brilliant gems, conveyed the rapacious sexual desire that hides under sweet words and deceptive innocence. A final held note led from a hymn into the only truly idyllic place depicted, the mythical Albion, where sweet sadness, looked back at a vanished past, as the cello sighed. With Lethe, the work itself faded and vanished in a swirl of mist and fog, watery and unreal.

A view from Kitchen's screen.
A view from Kitchen’s screen.

The Borromeo gave us a magnificent reading of the C Major Razumovsky, complete with the references to Mozart’s own K. 465 quartet at the beginning and Mozart’s G Major K. 387 in the fugal last movement. The beautiful and rich sound, filled with dynamics of subtle shades, the interpretation withal, elegant yet visceral; the finale; absolutely thrilled. From the brooding wilderness of opening dissonances, through the first violin’s search for resolution he players led masterfully to the exuberant C major theme, the exposition ending with strongly emphasized cello accents. The development ranged from softly mysterious to waves of dramatic buildup, culminating in a mischievous trill from Kitchen’s violin and an extended wandering recapitulation, leading to the exuberant theme that most people would hear as the recapitulation.

The Andante is built on one of Beethoven’s most beautiful melodies, one with an Eastern European flavor, perhaps intended to be the Russian theme that Rasumovsky had requested. As played here it felt sad, sweet and tender, punctuated by throbbing cello pizzicato, with sighing accompaniment. The ensuing Menuetto received a graceful but sad reading, while the trio possesed a depth and dignity not usually heard; the bridge to the finale passed by slow and mournful. The clouds parted with the viola’s sudden fugal entry at an astonishing tempo (12 notes per second, as marked), joined by the second violin, then cello, then first violin. The Borromeo controlled both the pace and dynamics, the latter ranging from ff to pp and back while holding tempo steady throughout, the phrases sharp and abrupt with short silences interspersed. The frantic pace continued to the end, before a short pause led to a hint of the K. 387 and then the wild ride of a coda. The Borromeos clearly enjoyed every second—as did we all.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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  1. I agree with every word of this review. It was splendid from beginning to end, the best Beethoven Op. 59, #3 I had ever heard. I also like the Bach the best of the three weeks. The three preludes and fugues worked wonderfully. Everyone played up a storm. It was very memorable.

    Comment by Susan Miron — August 15, 2016 at 6:54 pm

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