I was sick to death of Bach’s Goldberg Variations until hearing the Borromeo String Quartet’s magisterial take last night at Walnut Hills School as part of the Festival of Chinese Performing Arts. I have heard them played by two amazing harpists, on guitar, string trio, and, of course, harpsichord and piano. So, the prospect of hearing Nicholas Kitchen’s new arrangement had not provided any inducement to face a soaking lightning and thunderstorm, rather, Mendelssohn’s magical String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80 in F Minor attracted me.
The well-attended concert began with a delicately sculpted reading of Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C Minor, D. 703, memorable for its haunting melodies and darkly dramatic harmonies and modulations. What a satisfying opener!
With his customary charm, Kitchen talked thereafter about the Goldbergs, which he described as a “worthwhile and engaging way to spend the hours if you’re awake in the night.” The ever-quotable pianist, Jeremy Denk, had this to say them: “Yes, Bach did insert three minor-key variations in order to change up the mood. But three out of 30 is not many—not enough. The Goldbergs are a desert of happiness with oases of sadness.”
Kitchen has shown an extraordinary gift for arranging Bach. I listened to the Borromeo’s masterful recording of (Bach’s) Preludes and Fugues from Book I many times when I was trying to play several of them on the harp last summer. The Goldberg proved just as stirring, perhaps because of the extraordinary interpretation. For one thing, violist Mai Motobuchi had come back, sounding just splendid, after some time off for an injury. The theme and variations began, well, nicely, but as they moved into the teens, things got thrilling. Variation 19 burst with exuberance, and Motobuchi got to shine. Variation 21, canon at the 7th, sounded suitably lachrymose in its minor key. Variation 25, an adagio, spoke very quietly and otherworldly, with Yeesun Kim’s cello eloquence. Violinist Kristopher Tong) duetted with Motobuchi to lovely effect in Variation 27. Variations 28 and 29 absolutely thrilled. Without any repeats, it ran to about 40 minutes. It was so eye-opening and thought-provoking, and almost beatific, the foursome could have repeated the whole set. Jeremy Denk reminds us, “Perhaps the most serious complaint you could make about Bach is that he has every quality of humanity except imperfection.”
The Borromeos closed with a staggering take on Mendelssohn’s sixth quartet, the last major piece he completed before he died two months later on November 4th, 1847. An homage to his sister Fanny, it bears the title “Requiem for Fanny.” Nothing could have prepared me for such intensity, passion, and excitement. Surely this Op. 80 is the Drama Queen of Quartets. Borromeo is embarking on a two-year cycle of Mendelssohn’s six Quartets at Gardner Museum. Last night’s evidence suggests that there’s no ensemble better suited to the task.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.