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The Borromeo String Quartet
Vivacious Transports: Borromeo String Quartet in Concert
By Gary R. Lemco
THE BORROMEO STRING QUARTET (estab. 1989) performed music by Bach, Jaffe, and Beethoven as part of the Sunset Concerts series at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, California, Friday, March 30, 2012. With their one encore, a string quartet transcription of the Chorale-Prelude No. 8 of Brahms, from his Op. 122, Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, the ensemble concluded a particularly fine recital whose range and degree of bravura testified to a well-honed discipline both intelligent and dynamically alert.
A transcription had opened the concert as well, the Organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582 of J. S. Bach, arranged for string quartet by first violin Nicholas Kitchen. Cellist Yeesum Kim set the eight-bar ground theme upon which Bach constructs some twenty-one restatements. A pupil of David Soyer, Ms. Kim sports a brilliant instrument, a Peregrino Zanetto, c. 1576, that we could hear in its most ardent guise here as well as in the later Beethoven Op. 59, No. 3 “Rasoumovsky” Quartet. Nicholas Kitchen soared in his occasional concertante passages; and in those “trio sonata” episodes, the individual textures achieved a limpid, intimate clarity. By the arrival of the well wrought, final peroration, we felt as if none of Bach’s massive harmony and searing tension had been lost, and we could speculate on this group’s sound in the Mozart K. 546 Adagio and Fugue in C Minor or Beethoven‘s own Op. 133 Great Fugue.
The centerpiece of the evening came in the form of String Quartet No. 2 “Aeolian and Sylvan Figures” by Stephen Jaffe (b. 1954), preceded by a detailed précis with musical examples by Nicholas Kitchen and the Barromeo. In five movements that explore visual and sonic associations, the piece afforded an “effective” vehicle for players, despite its having a rather “Webern aesthetic” comprised of short riffs and atomized, rhythmic gestures that began with a sighing or “wind chime” motif. Without melodic extension, the figures seemed hectic and meandering, occasionally eliciting a bluesy or interrupted-dance character. “Muted interlude” might nod to the sudden urgency in Bartok. “Scherzino chickadee,” taking its cue from a bird call, employs syncopes of some interest.
“Homage to breath” (syrinx) invokes the opening wind chime, but I found myself wondering how long I could stay under water. There were, gratefully, some melodic turns that evinced a melancholy in the mode of Samuel Barber. The last movement, in the manner of the Berlioz Harold in Italie, made reference to the past movements’ riffs before propelling us into a perpetuum mobile toccata of whizzing figures, ostinati, and high harmonics. Deft, incisive, and virtuosic as the playing may have been by four committed musicians, they could not convince me that this piece warrants more of my musical inquiry.
The second half of the program proffered Beethoven’s amazing Op. 59, No. 3 C Major Quartet, made doubly impressive by having the participants’ projection via their laptops of Beethoven’s autograph score before us on a huge screen as the music proceeded. We felt that we engaged in the spontaneity of the creative process, given the energy of Beethoven’s script markings, his crossings-out, and his dynamic adjustments. From the outset of Beethoven’s diminished chords in the Andante con moto, we felt mesmerized, in the throes of some awesome revelation about to unfold. The heart of the music lies in its splendid Andante con moto quasi Allegretto, a melancholy rondo marked by plucked bass and an evolving, serpentine melody of ever increasing power. Borromeo molded the individual phrases, underlining the dynamics and the vivid expressivity of the occasion.
The Grazioso Menuet relieved some of the exquisite tension of the second movement Andante; but it, too, came to an unresolved cadence just before Beethoven’s driving Allegro molto[/i] exploded into feral motion. Rhythmically blithe and emotionally confident, the music proceeded with alert, visceral energy, quite palpable in the interchanges of violins Nicholas Kitchen, Kristopher Tong, and viola Mai Motobuchi. Contrapuntally inflamed textures moved at hurricane speeds across both our ears and eyes, a tour de force that left no empty seats as an enthralled audience rose as one to hail these four gifted instrumentalists. ♫
Dr. Gary R. Lemco regularly reviews for Classical
Music Guide. He resides in California.
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