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This was a great concert – not only is the Borromeo Quartet a superb ensemble, the individual players are all virtuosi, playing vintage instruments. But above all, the music they chose to play for the closing concert of Greensboro's Music for a Great Space series was outstanding! So if I err on the side of brevity, it is because to describe perfection is harder than casting shadows on the sun.
Two works were on the program, the first being J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, originally composed for double-manual harpsichord, but felicitously transcribed for string quartet by Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist, and heard this evening for the first time in public. These 32 variations all use the same bass line (with adornments) and all contain the same number of measures. Yet they are varied in mood and nature, and every third variation is a strict canon with the second voice each time entering at an ever-increasing degree of separation, e.g. the first canon is at the unison, the second at the second degree of the scale, the third at the interval of a third, etc. Yet at no time are the variations sterile exercises, but rather, the fruits of fertile imagination at work. In the interest of time (the complete Goldberg Variations with repeats lasts well over an hour), the individual variations were played without repeats, although I would have welcomed repeats on the final statement of the Aria, as a parting farewell.
In brief remarks after intermission, Kitchen referred to the 1984 string trio version of the Goldberg Variations by violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, transcribed by Sitkovetsky in 1992 for string orchestra and performed in Greensboro in September 2015. Kitchen's version makes technical and rhythmic demands only a virtuosic quartet could meet, especially in the 13th, 20th and 23rd variations, where the rapidly oscillating lines are divided up between two players - a sort of high speed musical ping-pong! The players fairly bounced through these exciting passages!
The other work on the program was the late Beethoven Quartet Opus 127 in E-flat, the 12th of 17 quartets Ludwig Beethoven was to complete. Written in the last three years of his life, the late quartets are among the most creative and innovative musical works ever composed, hiding secrets and exposing emotions hitherto unknown in music. Opus 127, the earliest of these late quartets still follows the model established by Haydn, a four-movement format: Sonata-Allegro first movement, introspective theme and variations as the second movement, a rapid dance-like third movement, and lively Rondo to close, although the unpredictable harmonies are decidedly Beethoven-esque. The opening Maestoso opens with an arbitrary rhythm, which reappears twice, but not again, as we expect. The delicate soft ending was exquisite and perfectly prepared for the lengthy and sublime second movement. After a pizzicato start, the Scherzo (marked Scherzando, "joking") rollicked from start to finish. The finale is energetic, flirting with the key of A-flat (subdominant) until a dreamy sequence in 6/8 with trills and triplet runs in thirds appears out of nowhere – but providing a lovely contrast to the bouncy rest of the movement. A well-deserved standing ovation rewarded this exquisite performance.
A brief note about the excellent acoustics of the very high-ceiling Christ United Methodist Church on Holden Road in Greensboro where the concert was held – the absence of a near wall or a small shell behind the performers disadvantaged the excellent second violinist whose sound was noticeably softer than his colleague whose instrument faced the audience (and whose soaring part makes more use of the louder "E" string).
The program will be repeated at St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Durham on Sunday afternoon. See our sidebar for details.