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Borromeo String Quartet conclude their Traversal of the Beethoven Quartets at the Gardner Museum with Nos. 13 – 15

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The Borromeo String Quartet. Photo Eli Akerstein.
The Borromeo String Quartet. Photo Eli Akerstein.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Calderwood Hall
Sunday, April 15, 2012

Borromeo String Quartet
Nicholas Kitchen, Kristopher Tong, violins
Mai Motobuchi, viola
Yeesun Kim, cello

The Complete Beethoven String Quartets, Part V

Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op 132
Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op 131
Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major (with the Große Fuge), Op 130 and 133

For a writer it is almost as daunting to write about Beethoven’s late quartets — which are pretty much the greatest music we have — as it is for musicians to play them. The depth of human experience and height of musical thought they hold is beyond anything else. Experiencing human expression at this level is something like looking straight into the sun: a few seconds can blind one for a few minutes; longer exposure can blind one permanently — or, in relation to the quartets, perhaps substitute the word “change” for “blind.” That is, the sort of change Sophocles’ Oedipus underwent in putting out his eyes and setting out in the wanderings that took him to Colonus. Beethoven in fact depicts this kind of human transformation literally in the third movement of his A Minor quartet. If one listens to Beethoven’s late quartets with attention, it is impossible to be casual about art, life, or illness.

In my review of one of the American Maverick concerts at Carnegie Hall I commented that I found Henry Brant’s orchestral arrangement of another great work, Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, to be something of a desecration, if a well-intentioned one. Although I didn’t say it at the time, there was a more egregious desecration in John Adams’ pretentious and trivial “riff” on Beethoven’s late quartets in his Absolute Jest, which I compared to the mental noise that turns one’s mind into a musical squash court after hearing the late quartets together in concert. I did not actually know at the time that I’d be hearing just that program barely a fortnight in the future. After this performance at the Gardner Museum, I’m happy to say that I did not experience the “squash court effect.” I don’t know whether I have John Adams to thank for that or the distraction of my first exploration of Renzo Piano’s gracious addition to the Gardner. Or, more likely, it was the very completeness of the Borromeo’s playing of these works which left my mental court in relatively good order.

This was in fact the first time I have heard a really successful traversal of the three last quartets, either in the concert hall or on a recording. There obviously must have been others, but I have never been in the right place at the right time. The old Busch Quartet recordings have always been the peak of my experience with these works until now. The situation is somewhat different today, since we now have so many string quartets in the world, especially in North America, many of them made up of young musicians, who play on this level and take an innovative approach to playing, that the limitations I have encountered in the past no longer hold. The Guarneri, Melos, and the Emerson Quartets are examples of groups who have approached these works with a technical standard which seemed to inhibit — or distract — them from the humane qualities of the music, its true core. They seemed so bent on technical perfection that they missed the point. The late Budapest Quartet recordings were too messy to make their point and not immune to a certain facile sentimentality, as were their early recordings, which were more cleanly played. In recordings, apart from aforementioned Busch 78s, the Végh Quartet came very close to the heart of the matter. My recollection of my vinyl Hollywood Quartet recordings is too distant, but they have been remastered by Pristine Classical, and perhaps I can refresh my memory and discuss them at some point. Of course there are many others one could consider.

Catherwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo Michael Miller.
Catherwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo Michael Miller.

This was my first visit to the new wing at the Gardner, which I’ll discuss separately on some other occasion, but it is impossible to ignore it entirely, if only because acoustics are such an integral part of any musical performance. In fact Renzo Piano’s entrance wing offered a sympathetic contemporary environment, dedicated to contemporary art, books, education, relaxation, conversation, dining, shopping, plants…and music. The atmosphere is quiet — nicely calculated to ease the mass of visitors into whatever they came there for, whether it is Isabella’s world or music — the concerts that have been moved from football field of the Tapestry Room to the new Catherwood Hall. Beethoven’s last quartets couldn’t present a less opportune occasion for exploring a new, not uncontroversial museum building and performance space, but, given the unusual disposition of the space, it is impossible not to be curious. The hall is square and tall. The audience sit in narrow spaces around each wall on four levels, the first one significantly taller than the others. Skylights surround curved acoustical reflectors above them. Yes, really quite unusual…but I felt at home soon enought. Sitting in the front row on the lowest level, only ten feet way from cellist Yeesun Kim, I was astonished by the perfect instrumental balance of the four musicians, who sat, Renaissance-style, in a circle. The intimacy of sitting so close to the musicians and on the same floor is almost unheard of in a public concert hall, not to mention the ability to feel the cello’s lowest notes through one’s feet. The cello is the loudest of the instruments, of course, but it never seemed to dominate the others. The blend of the four strings and the clarity of their textures were impeccable. There was absolutely nothing to complain about and everything to assist one’s enjoyment of the music. Beyond this were was a winning combination of ease and solemnity in the darkened space. The fact that everyone faced the center and each other heightened the sense of occasion and of the community of people who had gathered there to hear great music.

One can only thank the Gardner’s Music Director, Scott Nickrenz, for engaging the Borromeo as a quartet-in-residence in the museum’s distinguished music program. This was the final concert of their cycle of Beethoven Quartets, which has spanned several years. As a group they are very much interested in education and outreach and use digital media in presentations of this sort. They also play from complete scores, and a digital readout is a major help in this, obviating constant page-turning, and dangling, pasted-together pages. Some people find all this fascinating, but all that’s really important is what you hear, and their MacBook Pros and iPads on their music stands seem genuinely to help them get beyond the score. There really is something different about the Borromeo’s ensemble. They are always cohesive and focused as a group, but there is a remarkable freedom in their musical interaction. There is more sympathy and inner synchronization in their playing than drill, and taking their cues from the entire score clearly plays a role in this. Far from making a fetish of technique, they approached the music with a heartening warmth of tone and apparent spontaneity.

As Nicholas Kitchen mentioned after the concert, they were interested in playing these three quartets together, not only because they belong to the same period of creative activity, but because there is a tangible relationship between their thematic motifs and favored intervals. Beyond that, there is an intangible kinship among the works in that their movements all seem to contemplate different aspects of music and life. When Beethoven finished the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony in April and May of 1824, he turned to a more intimate format, the string quartet, in an attitude of creative relaxation, which only freed him to explore manifold, divergent corners of the human soul. The mercurial fluidity of his invention in these final works surpassed even the late sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, and the Bagatelles, as rich as they are in split-second shifts of harmony, texture, and mood. No wonder that a willed, perfectionistic performance seems counterproductive.

The Borromeo’s performances of Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, No. 14 in C# Minor, and No. 13 in B Flat Major (concluding with the Große Fuge, as Beethoven first composed it), played in reverse order, were so thoroughly organic that it seems counterintuitive to pick them apart. They themselves, bringing the audience along with them, were so deeply immersed in the flow of the music, that the individual units of the music, from section to movement to work to the entire series seemed to be a seamless fabric. It was the sort of performance of which Furtwängler was the master — one which treated every bar and every note as a statement of equal, very high, importance. I wouldn’t be surprised if even listeners who knew the music well found themselves marvelling at passages they thought they’d never heard before. In music like this there is no such thing as a transitional passage — at least that is how the Borromeo see it. The listener participated in Beethoven’s ruminations as something lived entirely in the moment, but with a consciousness of the whole and its larger patterns and structures. There was certainly no sense of the works flowing together into a shapeless jumble. (A bad performance can replicate that “squash court effect” our memory produces as it does its work on remembered music.)

A program like this is physically grueling. While the musicians had severe bruises on their chins to show for it, their energy and concentration never flagged over at least two and a half hours of this demanding music, with only a five-minute break between the first works and ten to fifteen between the second and third, culminating in the B Flat with the Große Fuge as finale. It was once the standard opinion that the fugue was unplayable, even as a stand-alone work, especially by the limited forces of a string quartet, and we have recordings by most of the great conductors and orchestras as a document of that view. The Borromeo proceeded bravely into it from the Cavatina, producing an exceptionally coherent reading, which never lacked in power. Their dynamics seemed consistently right, and they never inflated their sound or injected harshness in inappropriate places.

These three works contain an entire world (and then there are Op. 127 and 135!), and the spiritual journey is vast, infinitely more than two and a half worldly hours can hold. It is only to be expected that the mental explosions that follow a hearing are particularly intense, even if it is not appropriate to imitate them in a score. However, the actual works, as one hears them, are a marvel of logic and structure, although Beethoven, with the evanescent subtlety of his thematic treatment and harmony, half-conceals it. The Borromeo’s performance came closer than any other I have heard in realizing all this in sound.

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