in: Reviews

August 27, 2018

The Littlest String Orchestra

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During Maverick Concerts’ current season, half of its numerous string quartets seemingly acknowledge that they are merely four players, while the others have decided to emulate string orchestras. The Borromeo String Quartet, which made a welcome return to Maverick on Sunday, embodies the latter approach. The group opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in G Minor, K. 546, which string orchestras also play. We all but had one here. Though very clean and precise, the reading also conveyed elegant but heavy drama with a quasi-orchestral sound. This little-heard piece made a very strong impression.

Ned Rorem is famously dismissive of the twelve-tone school, but that doesn’t mean he adheres to tonality all the time and he certainly doesn’t in his adventurous String Quartet No. 3, of 1984. The opening Chaconne begins with tiny, squeaky high sounds, becoming increasingly frantic as it continues, atonal all the way. The interesting second movement, Scherzo–Sarabande–Scherzo, surrounds a slow tonal melodic section with atonal speed. The third movement follows the same pattern. The fourth, a brief “Epitaph,” is quite affecting, and then the quartet concludes with a movement called “Dervish,” wild, atonal, and enigmatic. The performance, of course, was splendid, the musicians obviously deeply involved in their work.

Many years ago, my piano teacher criticized me when I played the first Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier because I sat on the first note of each figure while playing the rest of it. “But it sounds good,” my little protest ran. “It’s not written that way,” my teacher replied, “so it shouldn’t be played that way.” Nicholas Kitchen, who arranged Bach’s entire WTC for string quartet, has the bottom note of each figure held while the rest of it is played. I think he’s wrong and my teacher was right. In fact, from the two samples of the WTC played at this concert, I’m not sure arranging WTC for string quartet is such a great idea, as it takes unfair advantage of the strings’ sustaining power in music where each note was intended to decay quickly. And of course, unfretted stringed instruments don’t need to be concerned about temperament, anyway since they can play perfect intervals in any key. It’s certainly OK to arrange Bach’s music. He did enough of it himself. But in this case, something essential nature felt compromised. The enthusiastic audience didn’t agree.

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, in A Minor, Op. 13 is an incredible achievement for a teenage prodigy—music of depth and intrigue. The foursome’s gorgeous, rich, large sound felt completely appropriate for this composition, never interfering with clarity and balance, and the interpretation completely characterized each movement. Perhaps the Borromeos could return with Mendelssohn’s last string quartet, Op. 80, a tragic masterpiece that stands unique in the composer’s output.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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