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It is always a special treat when the Borromeo String Quartet performs in the Triangle, which is fairly often, due to the fact that first violinist Nicholas Kitchen is a Durham native who always enjoys coming home. Violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim complete the outstanding personnel of this widely acclaimed quartet.
The program opened with a unique treat: Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, S.552 ("St. Anne"), as arranged for string quartet by Kitchen. His brief introductory talk on Bach's use of numerology as a composing tool was most illuminating. The piece is nicknamed "Saint Anne" after the familiar British hymn tune by William Croft (1678-1727). The subject tune Bach uses sounds very similar to Croft's, but it is not known whether Bach was familiar with it. The title was not applied by Bach. The performance of Bach's masterful counterpoint and harmonic structure was exquisite in every respect. The Borromeo was remarkable for its precision and dynamic care which beautifully underscored the genius of Bach.
After his heart-wrenching String Quartet No. 8, Dimitri Shostakovich intended his String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat, Op. 117, to be a "children's work (about toys and excursions)." However, the sketches did not please him, and he burned them in a rare "attack of healthy self-criticism." The quartet now known as No. 9 was written and published two years later; it preserved only the key (E-flat) and the bright spirit of children. It was dedicated to his third wife, Irina, with whom he enjoyed the most deeply satisfying of his three marriages.
The Ninth Quartet is in five movements, played without pause. The first movement is of a light and danceable quality, perhaps a love token to the dedicatee. The second movement, Adagio, is a lovely lyrical piece, most of it soaring in the first violin over sustained chords in the other instruments, undoubtedly composed with Irina in mind. The third movement is Shostakovich's sense of humor in action. It is playfully fun, shifting from jazz to polka, with wild runs and jaunty syncopation and, as in the 15th Symphony, references to the galloping theme from Rossini's William Tell. But as the quartet melts over into the fourth movement – another adagio – the mood becomes more somber. Fun cannot last forever.
Each of the first four movements lasts around four minutes. The fifth movement is twice that long. It is complex rhythmically and stylistically and offers surprises galore with references to the previous movements and ends with a delightful romp.
From warm and heart felt lyricism to galloping fun and dancing joy, the four individuals who make up the Borromeo String Quartet individually and in ensemble brought the wondrous music of Shostakovich thrillingly to life.
After an intermission, the BSQ turned to the first of the five String Quartets (and the Große Fugue in B-flat) composed by Ludwig Van Beethoven in his late period. These six works are Beethoven's last major completed compositions, and they are now widely considered to be among the greatest musical compositions of all time. They have inspired many later composers.
The Op. 127 quartet took Beethoven 15 years to write. During this time, his life was tumultuous, characterized by ill health, total deafness, and stormy family conflicts. When Beethoven finally got around to fulfilling the commission of Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, it was with enthusiasm that he returned to the quartet medium. While some of his approach maintained standard quartet practices, there is much new and there are many hints of what was to come. He increased the complexity of structural texture, introducing new formats and harmonic language. Theme and variations took on a totally different arrangement.
The Borromeo String Quartet performed the Beethoven with an awesome sense of confidence empowering heroic passages like those that start this piece and settling into the calm and relaxed development with comfortable ease. The lyrical second movement recalled the second movement of the 9th Symphony, sung by the strings as wordless angels communicating heavenly thoughts. The Scherzando third movement whizzed by with dizzying changes taking place around hidden corners. The fourth movement brought more surprises, some attention-getting dissonances, and a foot-tapping passage to keep us alert. A change in mood provided a breather before the final thrilling mad dash to the end. It was glorious!
With remarkable rhythmic precision, balanced sonority, and unified interpretive dynamics, the Borromeo String Quartet left the audience supremely fulfilled and satisfied.