Last weekend I had a rare opportunity to attend and write about two concerts by two string quartets – given a few miles and less than 24 hours apart. This, by itself, is not that unusual since we have a thriving cultural calendar that often has multiple events piled atop each other. What intrigued me was the programming. Each quartet would be playing different works by Beethoven and Shostakovich, plus they both would be closing their program with the same composition: Beethoven’s monumental Grossße Fuge, Op. 133. Another interest, to me, was the standing of both ensembles in the rarified world of string quartets, how they differ and why.

There are some who decry any attempt to compare or measure performers and ensembles against one another. High art engaging in a type of athletic competition is seen as beneath the high utopian ideals of classical music. This, of course, is nonsense and disingenuous. A majority of careers are built on winning major competitions, with this mindset beginning in contests as early as elementary school bands. This writer has tended to stay away from such pointed accolades – until last Sunday. This is not a rush judgment, but has slowly grown after many hearings and comparisons. There is a string quartet that is the best in the world, at least among active ensembles.  

I can’t be certain, but it’s a safe bet that the Takács String Quartet did not realize that their appearance at Duke’s Reynolds Auditorium — sponsored by Duke Performances‘ Chamber Arts Society — would be in direct conflict with the holiest day of the year ’round these parts: the UNC-Chapel Hill vs. Duke basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium – just a short walk from Reynolds. Further complicating matters is the insane construction going on near the concert venue. In other words, you had some major obstacles to overcome just to get to this concert. This did not deter many as Reynolds was nearly filled to capacity. The Takács Quartet is at the top of their world. They perform more than 80 concerts a year all over the world, they are in demand by most concert presenters, and they have a new contract with Hyperion, the elite and elegant record label. They formed in 1975 in Budapest and have garnered mantles full of awards and recognition over the years – even as personnel changed.

The three string quartets of Johannes Brahms have never quite found the footing of his piano trios, piano quartets, sextets and wonderful piano quintet. The first two (Op. 51) bear the burden of Brahms’ preoccupation with the inevitable comparison to Beethoven and they tend to come off containing equal measures of the greatness of Brahms combined with the unfortunate excesses. By 1876, when he wrote his third string quartet in B-flat major, his string writing was more self-confident and less concerned with profundity. It is a good-humored and buoyant score that has all the unmistakable Brahmsian attributes without the plodding murkiness of the earlier quartets. Violinists Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz, joined by violist Geraldine Walther and cellist Andras Fejer gave an incisive, light and playful reading that was a welcome opener. 

In addition to the fifteen numbered string quartets composed by Shostakovich, there is a fascinating work called Two Pieces for String Quartet (consisting of Elegy and Polka). This work was discovered in Moscow in 1980 and it bears no opus number. Written in 1931, it predates his first quartet and is loosely based on transcriptions of musical ideas from his early theater and ballet scores. This work can serve as a microcosm of Shostakovich’s musical style. The elegy is an example of the great Russian’s emotionally draining, angst-filled writing that would permeate many of his later compositions that depict in music the horrors of World War II and the suffering of the Russian people. This is followed by a polka so bizarre and circus-like that it would be completely appropriate as the soundtrack for a Fellini film. The Takács Quartet made this treacherous transition with ease and believability. The constant shifting between pizzicato and arco playing was handled with great precision and deftness, and resulted in one of those rare performances where music evokes hearty belly laughs.

The second half was devoted entirely to the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, by Beethoven. Technically this is correct as the Große Fuge was originally the final movement of this quartet. However, this movement was so massive and complex that Beethoven was urged by his publisher to write a different final movement and divorce the Große Fuge into a stand-alone work, which he did as Op. 133. It is during the performance of both of these works that there seemed to creep into the Takács’ playing a lethargy and laziness that, while certainly not completely damaging to the entire performance, was disappointing from such a high caliber group. Dynamics constricted into a narrow range that robbed much of the passion from Beethoven’s highly emotive score. I have to be fair and admit that I was already listening with one ear and already comparing this performance with one of the same work I heard in October by the quartet I would hear again in about 18 hours.

With their concert the following day, the Borromeo String Quartet completed their second year of a three year commitment to perform all of Beethoven’s string quartets, interspersed with other works, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham. I have been fortunate to have heard all of these concerts, plus their monumental, marathon-like afternoon at Duke University where they played all six Bartók string quartets. As hinted at earlier in this article, I proclaim them as the finest actively performing string quartet that I have heard. I am neither crazy nor alone with this sentiment. The Boston Globe considers them “simply the best there is” as well as “one of the defining experiences of civilization in Boston.” Despite the obvious objective and rational realization that this is a subjective evaluation, I find it difficult to imagine any listener with any musical sensitivity thinking otherwise. I am even more firmly entrenched with this belief after having the nearly simultaneous opportunity to compare the Borromeo Quartet with the Takács – better known and in the first tier of chamber music groups for presenters and most of the public. This is quite baffling, but perhaps it has at least partially something to do with the fact that the Borromeo Quartet does not record for a major label, but instead sells direct to the public their live concerts through their Living Archive Series. Information on this can be found here.

Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins, combine with Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello, as a musical force of nature that has to be experienced to be believed. This afternoon concert was quite interesting in that we got to hear both the first and last string quartet written by Beethoven as well as a relatively rarely heard quartet by Shostakovich. Despite the “No. 3” designation out of the six Opus 18 string quartets, this one in D major was Beethoven’s first – written around 1799. You could easily hear the influence of Haydn in his more adventuresome moments. This is a sunny, joyous work that, along with the afternoon sunlight streaming through the lovely stained-glass windows and the brilliant and jubilant playing of the Borromeo Quartet, elevated the spirits of everyone present.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 12 was composed in 1968 while he was in ill-health but still very much creatively active. While not excessive in length (about 28 minutes) it is massive in structure and intensity, and employs the use of the 12-tone technique – but within Shostakovich’s inimitable style. First violinist Kitchen gave a very informative introduction to the work – a quasi roadmap. One of the great attributes of the Borromeo’s playing is that through their passion, unequalled technical brilliance and complete absorption in the music, they grab you and insist that you really listen. Their brand of unabashed, emotional undressing is so powerful and personal that anyone who does not respond in kind should have a defibrillator nearby.

The second half consisted of an extended spoken introduction to and performance of Beethoven’s Grossße Fuge. After a brief, calm introduction we are launched into one of the most unrelentingly loud, intense and jittery moments in all of music. The gentle fugue subject is subjected to increasingly dense compression along with incessant dotted-rhythms and cross-rhythms. When you think that the listener and performers can no longer sustain this ferocity the music subsides into a gentle and quiet interlude before the vigorous finale. While the Takács Quartet’s reading was certainly a well-crafted one, it lacked the remarkable rhythmic vibrancy and variations of tone color that the Borromeo Quartet conveyed. These seemingly negligible differences are what makes the Borromeo’s performances so inspiring and revelatory.

The Borromeo Quartet is four individuals that display their individual strengths yet still assimilate them into the group. Cellist Kim can coax power and volume from her instrument that has not been heard since Jacqueline Du Pré, yet can fall back to a beautifully, elegantly phrased whisper. Violist Motobuchi has the most expansive arsenal of different sounds and tonal qualities on her instrument that I have ever heard. Both violinists play as if they never met a passage that contains any technical difficulties. Together they are a miracle of musicianship that we are fortunate to have in this world.