Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review: Borromeo String Quartet

Feb. 12, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Borromeo String Quartet – violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim – is the rock star of chamber music at present, at least among people who read The New York Times, which recently gave the ensemble a huge spread, focusing on the foursome's embrace of new technologies:

One of those high-tech innovations came along with the Borromeo for its weekend visit to VCU. The musicians performed facing laptops displaying full scores instead of the usual printed individual parts. As Kitchen explained during the concert, playing with the full score in view enables each musician to see what the others are playing – and, even more usefully, what they are about to play – giving the performers a real-time sense of their roles in the ensemble. This larger picture has been available to listeners, at least those who follow along with scores in their laps; but until now it has been impractical for musicians other than conductors.

Does this new perspective make a qualitative difference in the Borromeo's performance? The last time I heard the group live, in 2003, with a different second violinist, I sensed a slackening of concentration when the music wasn't at some extreme of volume, articulation or expression. I heard no such shortcoming in this performance. This program, however, consistently demanded the sharpest possible focus from all four players.

Especially the centerpiece, the Quartet No. 4 ("Findings") by the Russian-born composer Lera Auerbach. This work, dating from 2007, ranges through 16 sections or episodes, some of them with contrasting subsections, only a couple long enough to qualify as a movement. Kitchen described it as "stream of consciousness" music, the sound equivalent of rooting through objects in an attic, each kindling a feeling or memory, which often overlaps with the one preceding or following it.

The score is highly eventful, peppered with rarified tones and tone combinations – a "normal" string-quartet sound is the exception rather than the rule; episodes or sound-objects appear briefly and in quick succession, usually followed by something markedly different. Performers must play with intense concentration, pushing their technical and expressive limits, but also must have an ear for emotional nuance, atmospherics and humor.

After playing a work this demanding, a quartet might be forgiven for warming up or subsequently decompressing with more conventionally voiced and structured pieces. The Borromeo preceded the Auerbach with Kitchen's arrangement of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and devoted the second half of its program to the first of the famously challenging late Beethoven quartets, the E flat major, Op. 127. Plus the speedy, brilliant finale of Beethoven's Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, as an encore.

That is a great deal of intense, technically challenging and expressively variable music to pack into two hours, and the Borromeo audibly and visibly relished every note of it. They also played up resonations – a snatch of melody or harmony here, a texture or timbre there – that link these seemingly unrelated works.

Kitchen showed himself to be the equal of any solo or chamber violinist at work today. Cellist Kim was a massively sonorous yet concise and detailed bass voice. Second violinist Tong and violist Motobuchi played their inside parts with unusual clarity and presence. They sounded to be more intent on illuminating each part of the whole than on producing a refined collective sound, and more attuned to rhythm than to long-lined lyricism – but those were the qualities most essential to the pieces they were playing.

A good performance of chamber music is an absorbing experience. This was an enveloping one.