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Chamber Music Review Print

Saint Stephen's Christmas Concert: Borromeo String Quartet in Dual Roles

December 14, 2008 - Durham, NC:

Concerts by the distinguished Borromeo String Quartetin Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church are always a treat and have the air of homecoming. This is because of first violinist Nicholas Kitchen's family's long association with the church's ambitious musical and spiritual life. Instead of their usual straight chamber music concert, the quartet was featured both as guest artists for two works and as accompanists for the Chamber Choir at Saint Stephen's.

Many of the keyboard works of J. S. Bach (1685-1750) have always attracted musicians to transcribe them for other instruments or ensembles. The Borromeo Quartet's concert opened with a transcription by Kitchen of the Fugue in C-sharp minor, S. 849 from The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I. Each musician produced a beautifully clear, focused tone as the quartet wove every twist and turn of the musical strands.

Franz Joseph Haydn is often called the father of the string quartet. Some quip that Luigi Boccherini was its mother! The quartets of Wolfgang Mozart are arguably the climax of the string quartet in the Classical Period. Building upon the advances of his predecessors, the Late String Quartets of Ludwig Beethoven are the apex of the Romantic nineteenth century. The Borromeo Quartet played the challenging String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. According to Guide to Chamber Music by Melvin Berger, Beethoven's favorite string quartet was Op. 131 and many musicians "consider it the greatest string quartet ever written." Its seven movements are played without any break and great ensembles are judged by their ability to play it seamlessly while balancing the individual episodes within an over-arching conception.

The Borromeo musicians met every benchmark in their interpretation. Their dynamics and timbre were gorgeous and their intonation was crisp and clear. Kitchen's hushed violin at the transition between the slow adagio opening movement and the magical, faster tempo of the succeeding allegro was breathtaking. Mai Motobuchi's full, rich viola sound was welcome throughout the complicated and constantly changing tempos of the andante. Everyone seemed to have a ball with the helter-skelter pizzicatos of the presto. Yeesun Kim's sumptuous cello sound was a solid anchor in this movement and the rich palette of her plucked string sound was amazing. The full forte sound of the ensemble in the short adagio which followed was perfectly balanced while their performance of the concluding allegro was rhythmically exciting.

The Chamber Choir at Saint Stephen's, directed by Benjamin Hutchens, II, was featured in three selections after intermission. The choir sang "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" by Hugo Distler (1908-1942) a cappella. The women were arranged on the left of the stage while the men were on the right. An unusual feature of this work was the separate but overlapping of the stanzas. The women sang the first half of each stanza and the men began the second half before the women finished their portion. Balance between the voices was very good and the English text was readily followed because of the clear diction and tight ensemble.

Four unidentified soloists, drawn from the choir, were joined by the Borromeo String Quartet for a performance of "Elegisher Gesang," Op. 118 by Beethoven. The vocalists acquitted themselves well and their diction was excellent. The program gave both the German and English texts but the literal translation of the text seems to be enigmatic.

The full chamber choir and string quartet joined for a Christmas sampler: "All We Like Sheep" and "Amen" from Handel's Messiah. Rhythms were well sprung and every word was crystal clear. A full performance of the oratorio with a larger chamber orchestra and soloists in the transparent and warm acoustics of the church would be welcome.