Was that a musical mirage I experienced at Duke, back in June ? I finally had the chance to attend what was certainly a less ambitious program than all six Bartók string quartets, which was my first exposure to this remarkable group of musicians. On Sunday October 26, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild presented the Borromeo String Quartet with special guest pianist Gary Graffman in a unique program consisting of five players, 9 hands. Wait a minute, something’s missing! Yes, the right hand of the pianist. After nearly 30 years of great success as a concert pianist, Graffman suffered an injury to his right hand in 1979. Pursuing other interests for a time, he returned to the concert stage in 1993 performing works for left hand only. In doing so he joined a select, although not exclusive, club of great keyboard players past and present who have suffered the same fate – but almost always to their right hands!

The mighty Bösendorfer Imperial Grand piano took center stage at the Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh as Graffman opened up the afternoon’s concert with an arrangement for left hand alone of one of the most remarkable compositions ever created. In the Partitia No. 2 in d minor for unaccompanied violin, instead of ending with the usual gigue, J.S. Bach adds on a monumental chaconne. This is basically a series of variations on a harmonic sequence, much in the same way that a jazz player might improvise on the chord changes in a song. This arrangement was done by Brahms, first published in 1879. There have been much fuller and embellished arrangements of “the Chaconne” (although a general musical term, referring to it this way has become accepted), but this arrangement is closest to the original. The necessity of rolling chords with left hand alone mimics the difficulties of playing three and four note chords on the violin. This was a first for me and was a fascinating performance to watch. The entire auditorium and stage was totally in black except for two lights shining from above on Graffman, creating a stunning effect. The highly polished piano clearly reflected the one hand playing and this created an almost frightening effect of two hands facing each other, seemingly suspended in space. I have to admit that I would have preferred to hear violinist Nicholas Kitchen play this, but Graffman did present a convincing and sensitive reading of one of Bach’s most sublime works.

Except for those two “B’s” on the program, two of the performers and the next composer are or were affiliated with the Curtis Institute of Music. Gary Graffman is the president, the Borromeo Quartet was formed at Curtis, and Jennifer Higdon is on the composition faculty. Higdon is the exception to the stereotype of composers penning great works at a young age. Despite her prolific output and performances of many of her works by some of the most well-known orchestras, she knew almost nothing about music until entering college. “Scenes From the Poet’s Dreams,” for string quartet and piano left hand, was written and premiered by Gary Graffman and the Lark Quartet. Surprisingly, this is not the first composition of its kind. By its very nature, it seems to present a much more balanced sound than the standard two-hand variety of piano quintets. It is a work of great imagination, energy, and rhythmic complexity. Described as a journey through “the images she felt must be in the dreams of a poet,” Higdon conjures up a wonderful journey through stars, ponds, fields, insects and dancers. There are many works that attempt to portray the sound of insects, but the third movement entitled “I saw the Electric Insects Coming” is perhaps the most effective, realistic and frighteningly difficult that I have heard. Brilliantly executed, accessible but substantial new music is always a treat, and this score is one that I look forward to hearing again.

It has been written that for every chamber music work Brahms allowed to be published, he literally destroyed two. There is even some evidence that Brahms may have burned as many as 20 quartets before the one in c minor, Op. 51, No. 1, was published in 1873! It is a big, thickly textured work that requires a lightness and elegance in order not to get bogged down in what can be an overblown Romantic morass. Each member of the quartet – violinists Kitchen and William Fedkenheuer, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim – displayed a great sense of the control it takes to regulate the ebb and flow of the emotions of this work. At some point in the Poco adagio movement I heard a few fleeting moments of intonation problems. I am not saying this to be unduly picky or overly critical but actually for just the opposite reason: I was almost glad to hear a slight imperfection so I could convince myself that like, other musicians, these artists can make mistakes. Up to this point I had heard them play live nearly five hours of exquisite, flawless music (including last summer’s Bartók marathon). I would like to have heard some of the great string quartets of the past in concert at this stage of their careers and compare them to the Borromeo. It is hard to argue with the quote from The Boston Globe that they so deservedly use on their website (http://www.borromeoquartet.org/) and other publicity: “Simply the best there is….”