The Borromeo Quartet’s concluded a Saturday afternoon in the claustrophobic cube that is Calderwood Hall with Mendelssohn’s suffocating portrait of grief. Written in the wake of the sudden death of his sister, colleague and confidant Fanny, and two months before he died, the String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80 is restless, pained and sparing of comfort. The Borromeos (Nicholas Kitchen, Kristopher Tong, violin; Mai Motobuchi, viola; Yeesun Kim, cello) gave it an intensity and breadth that caused me to think of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Like that work, in the quartet a large, brooding first movement precedes a second movement that offers no respite; but in Mahler the first movement at least ends with a note of triumph. Mendelssohn instead offers a presto coda of near hysteria, culminating in a rocketing scale. The third movement offers consolation, but only in small doses. The cadence of the initial falling figure might be heard as calming, but in this reding, the ambiguous harmonies and rhythmic dislocations always subtly intrude: the listener can never relax. In short, this devastating interpretation offered everything one expects from this 23-year-old musical institution: a singleness of focus, a polished and accomplished technique, beauty of tone. The foursome invested even the simplest figures with subtle meaning. To take just one example, the rocking figure shared by the cello and violin in trio of the second movement possessed just enough space and shape to suggest a struggle for breath. A masterwork served admirably by a masterful ensemble.
One cannot make a steady diet of masterworks. The intriguing but less profound works that came earlier in the afternoon, did not seem to capture the imagination of the performers as thoroughly. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary” (1956) is a student work (Perkinson lived from 1932-2004), combining the most conservative forms possible (sonata allegro, A-B-A adagio, rondo) with a kind of dense, post-Debussy American sound that is always labeled as “jazzy” without quite qualifying. It was a common style at the time, common enough, that David Amram might very well have cribbed part of the treatment of the second subject of the first movement for the theme to The Manchurian Candidate. It was never less than ingratiating, but it remained curiously static, despite its toe-tapping energy. It is a commonplace to blame classical ensembles for squareness when playing music derived from jazz, but this was definitely square, presumably by choice. There was a missing ingredient here; at a first listen, one could tell if it were from the music, the performance, or both.
The other major work on the what constituted the Borromeo’s opening outing in a two-year complete Mendelssohn traversal, was his only other quartet that is regularly played, the second. (The first is pleasant but callow; the third through fifth a set, Op. 44, that is hard not to hear as a kind of retrenchment after the Octet). Written when the composer was 19, String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13 is an oddly structured work that is clearly attempting to work out the formal innovations/wild distortions found in late Beethoven. That it does not succeed as well as Beethoven is no surprise, but as a daring experiment by a young man, it has its virtues. The Borromeos treated it with much the same intensity and reverence as the sixth, but that didn’t suit it. Rough edges took on beautiful polish, counterpoint emerged with expert voicing, and gradually, it began to pall.
Before the concluding work, the players offered a Bernstein trifle, no doubt as an obligatory nod to the composer’s 100th birthday. As Bernstein left vanishingly little chamber music, Kitchen arranged “Ilana, the Dreamer” from Four Sabras, a minor piano work. The fragment interested us as an example of the fungibility of musical meaning. Here serving in its original guise as a picture of a dreamer, it had reemerged some six years later in Candide, paired with some of the most despairing lyrics in the show, as “Candide’s Lament.” The arrangement made a pretty and brief addition to the quartet repertoire.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.