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Borremeo Quartet Sings at Magic Mountain

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jun 13th, 2016

Left to right: Nicholas Kitchen, Mai Motobuchi, Yeesun Kim, Kristopher Tong. Photo at Gordon Hall this past Sunday. Front page teaser group photo by Richard Bowditch.

The Borremeo Quartet is NPR’s house quartet; they are also in-residence at the New England Conservatory. Sunday afternoon’s concert at Music Mountain was near capacity, as there were not enough programs printed for everyone. The Borremeo Quartet opened with six Prelude and Fugue movements from J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Klavier, a pedagogical work from 1722, which probably reflects many concepts about how Bach’s father taught him to compose on the keyboard.

The work is such a tour-de-force, virtuoso run of sparkling wit that the instructional motif may be something of a joke. Since the work has been a seminal influence on musicians, many have composers have found inspiration in it, and many arrangers have plundered it to offer tangents on its profundity or display their own talent. This was the first performance of this arrangement at Music Mountain. The arrangement for the quartet employed an augmented approach (slower rhythm). This was to lend the string instruments a more lyrical quality and endow the music with gravitas, a quality foreign to the furioso of Bach’s wit and impish sense of irony. The result was something approaching Biblical lamentation. It was only in hindsight that I understood why this was done.

The general result was pleasant, but not inspiring or riveting, although it permitted first violinist Nicholas Kitchen an opportunity to display nuance and finesse, especially in the concluding piece. As an attendee, I would have preferred a Haydn or Mendelssohn quartet, or perhaps a later period piece from Dvoráck or Martinū, yet the unified theme of the program would have be broken, unless they chose a late Haydn piece.

A monster Music Mountain favorite, Maurice Ravel’s 1903 String Quartet in F major, followed in which violist Mai Motobuchi excelled. This was the forty-fifth performance of this work at Music Mountain. It was played with intensity, energy, and mutual synergy. This was a classic that refuses to be dated.

Ravel employs cyclic themes to surprise effect. The opening triad of the first movement appears at the beginning of the second movement in pizzicato, a witty parodic gesture that appears with deflationary amusement. As a student of Gabriel Fauré, Ravel learned how to blend the classical with the sophistication of late Romanticism. Ravel (who later to became Debussy’s great rival), was told by the elder Debussy not to revise a single note of the piece. Throughout the work, cyclic themes are reshaped with different variations. This interior density and wit echoes the classicism of Bach while the permissive playfulness of digressions highlights a Romantic sensibility. The Borremeo Quartet melded the best of both those worlds with vibrant contemporary nuance: a heightened performance, indeed.

The Borremeo Quartet’s performance of Ludwig Beethoven’s 1825 String Quartet in E-flat major was no less wonderful. Despite the misery of Beethoven’s health in the last three years of his life, he still radiated the joy of life. This piece depicts a Job-like first violin discussing his afflictions with the other instruments who tempt him with defeat. This situation challenges the other players to rise to the level of Kitchen’s violin. And rise they did, especially Yeesum Kim on her sonorous cello while Kristopher Tong ably captured the caprice-like mischief of a tempter attempting to lead the first violin astray with despair. In the final fourth movement Kitchen excelled himself with transcendent, radiant lyricism: deafness, blindness, poverty could not stop Job-like Bach from communicating the simple joy, glory, and pathos of God’s creation with dancelike optimism. The Borremeo Quartet provided an unforgettable musical and religious transfiguration. 

Next Sunday the Pendercki Quartet will perform at Music Mountain. Last year they received an ecstatic review from Stephen Kaye, publisher and editor of TMI: