St. Stephen’s Concert Series, one of the finer chamber music series in the Triangle, is held in the acoustically superb and intimate St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hope Valley. A highlight of the series is the annual return of the distinguished Borromeo String Quartet led by “native son” violinist Nicholas Kitchen. Regular members are second violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesum Kim, Kitchen’s wife. On this occasion, guest violist Dov Scheindlin ably filled in for Motobuchi, who was indisposed.

This Borromeo program was a repeat of the one given in Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall in October 2017. Kitchen’s transcriptions* of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, were followed by one of the two finest quartets by Felix Mendelssohn, and new pieces by Sebastian Currier (b.1959) were followed by the best of the three quartets by Robert Schumann.

The Borromeo played the first four Preludes and Fugues (S. 846-849) by Bach. One of the insights revealed during a pre-concert demonstration was how Kitchen used double stops distributed among the players to accomplish the impression of three-part and five-part writing over four players. The musicians spun out all the interweavings of Bach’s lines immaculately, with flawless intonation and finely graduated dynamics.

After the concert, Kitchen said he was nearly halfway through his transcription of Book II. Its recording will be proceeded by one of a quartet transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What a wealth of treasure for the insomniac or those in need of spiritual succor!

The manuscript score of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 13, though clear and elegant, is written in a bold and rushed manner revealing the passionate intensity of the 18-year-old composer. The example of Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 (published after Mendelssohn’s Op. 13 in late 1827), hangs over this intense work. Clearly, Mendelssohn had absorbed Beethoven’s innovations from hearing them in live performance. Mendelssohn makes Beethoven’s use of integrated movements, fugal textures, new tonal affects, and cutting edge harmonies idiomatically his own. A three-note motive from Mendelssohn’s song “Frage,” Op. 9/1 (of which the incipit is “Ist es wahr?”), permeates the entire quartet.

After a slow introduction featuring a yearning phrasing of the three-note motif, Scheindlin’s viola introduced the principal theme followed shortly by the second theme played by Kim’s cello in its highest range. The players brought out all of the complex counterpoint and intense dissonance in the dynamic and surging development. They conveyed all the angst of the slow movement with its highly chromatic fugue. Scheindlin’s viola introduced the dark, dense fugato while Kitchen’s solo cadenza, near the end, led to the foreshorten repeat of the movement’s slow introduction. While the third movement Intermezzo is the least “elfin” of Mendelssohn’s scherzos, it opened with Kitchen playing a folk-like melody above his colleagues’ pizzicato accompaniment. A hushed fast middle section led to a sparkling coda. The Presto finale finds the composer at his most experimental. Kitchen, above his colleagues’ sustained tremolos, played the opening intense recitative brilliantly. The ensemble brought out all the tonal ambiguity and dissonant polyphony of the composer’s intertwining of motives related to the three-note motif. Kitchen’s violin solo led to the coda’s recapitulation of the first movement’s slow introduction.

The Borromeo’s October 2017 New York concert featured the world premiere of two pieces from Etudes and Lullabies, Sebastian Currier’s ongoing string quartet project. The composer’s teachers were Milton Babbitt and George Perle, and the composer with whom he most identifies is Béla Bartók.

Etude 6, “Velocities,” is like late Bartók on speed! Several horse hairs on bows were split over the course of Borromeo’s breath-takingly fast and ceaselessly intense playing. The program notes compare “Velocities” to a musical relay race “with all four instruments passing the baton – in the form of a blistering barrage of 16th notes – from one to the other. The designated sprinter is urged on by the other players’ “goading pizzicatos, tremolos, glissandos, and other effects.” Lullaby 2, “Dreaming” is more like a quiet cradlesong with dissonant sections. Its “slowly changing harmonies, microtonal intervals, and grating ponticello effects” were woven by the Borromeo players into an eerie, dream-like vision.

In preparing to compose his three string quartets, Robert Schumann immersed himself in classical examples of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven along with a focus on the contrapuntal writing of Bach. While he eschewed literary sources, his emotional duality – the passionate personified by Florestan and the rational by Eusebius – is evident throughout the Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 3, especially in the second movement.

A highlight of the often dreamy and plaintive first movement is the appearance of the second theme, introduced by cellist Kim’s sustained cantilena spun out above her colleagues’ off-beat accompaniment. Melvin Berger, in Guide to Chamber Music, describes the lively second movement as “among the most imaginative and ingenious movements in the chamber music repertoire.” The cart is before the horse in that three variations come before the statement of their theme, followed by a final variation. The Borromeo brought agitation aplenty. The theme, a marvelous canon for first violin and viola, was played beautifully by Kitchen and Scheindlin. The players sustained the extraordinary richness and warmth of the slow movement magnificently. Not least among its riches was Kitchen’s and Scheindlin’s dialogue around the throbbing second violin of Tong. The players were masterful over the course of the sparkling final movement with its contrasting themes and syncopated rhythms.

Perhaps after violist Motobuchi returns to the Borromeo Quartet, they could tour with Scheindlin with an all-viola quintet program of Mozart, Brahms, and Dvořák?‘s media review of the double CD recording of Kitchen’s quartet transcription of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, describes the recording’s impetus in Beijing’s notorious traffic jams.