The Covid-19 pandemic has brought untold horrors to the world in which we live, causing an almost two-year lapse in “live” performances by musicians and other artists. Because the Borromeo Quartet‘s first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen, grew up in Durham’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, that parish has been fortunate to host the group on a regular basis. On the occasion of their last pre-Covid concert at St. Stephen’s on March 31, 2019, I wrote: “If you want to hear unsurpassed musicianship, virtuoso technique, and a unique unity of performance, go to a concert by The Borromeo Quartet.” It was clear that performers and audience alike were grateful to be together again this time, not watching on a small screen or listening through computer speakers.

The program:
Adolphus Hailstork: String Quartet No. 2, Variations on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, L. 91, Op. 10
Johann Sebastian Bach, arr. Nicholas Kitchen: Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp, BWV 848
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No 16, in F, Op. 135

In his pre-concert talk, Kitchen discussed each of the works on the program, bringing his insights not only as a performer, but also as a musicologist. When preparing to perform, he penetrates deeply into each score, as does each member of this quartet. They perform not from pages of their own instrument’s part, but from the full quartet scores. (They pioneered this method of reading their scores from computer screens placed on music stands, with page-turning done with a simple tap of the foot on a pedal switch.) Together, Joseph Kitchen’s always-illuminating written program notes and his violinist son’s verbal notes provided substantial backgrounds to aid audience understanding of what to listen for, as well as some small details of note, e.g.: on the title page of Debussy’s score, he wrote “String Quartet No. 1,” but never wrote a No. 2.

The concert opened with another composer’s “No. 2,” Adolphus Hailstork‘s 2012 variations on the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Unlike many variation-on-a-theme works, this one has no separate movements, the music musing on the tune with melodic references small and large, with rhythms and harmonies providing much of the variety. Periodically, three dissonant fortissimo chords interrupt the musical progress: the program notes quote Hailstork’s description of these as “‘fate motifs’ to remind the listener that the ‘carry me home’ in the spiritual is an end-of-life request.” The music arrived “home” with a radiantly quiet re-statement of the tune by Yeesun Kim‘s cello as Kitchen, Kristopher Tong, and Mai Motobuchi serenely and peacefully closed the musical meditation.

The Debussy quartet followed, its decidedly French impressionist character filling St. Stephen’s sanctuary with colors as vibrant as those in the stained-glass windows which dominate the front of the nave (note that Debussy himself did not like his music called “impressionist”). The slow movement (Andantion, doucement expressif) was ravishingly beautiful, its viola solo lines illuminated by Motobuchi’s passionate intensity. The music’s closing section (Très mouvementé et avec passion) sizzled with the white heat of the Borromeo Quartet in full cry; nothing can surpass this group’s interpretation of this music.

After intermission, we heard a J.S. Bach prelude and fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier), transcribed by Nicholas Kitchen for string quartet. Kitchen’s adaptation (he has transcribed all forty-eight of the preludes & fugues in the two volumes of these keyboard works) brings out the playfulness of this music, tossing the two voices of the Prelude back and forth between varying pairs of instruments. The Fugue was rollicking, its three voices tossed back and forth between the four players in an all-too-short visit to Bach’s contrapuntal pleasure-trove.

The concert ended with Ludwig van Beethoven’s final quartet, his Opus 135 String Quartet No. 16, in F. In his pre-concert talk, Kitchen discussed how Beethoven’s seemingly fatalistic notes in his score (“The Difficult Resolution,” “Must it be?,” and “It must be!”) may well be an in-house set of puns by Beethoven regarding his relationship with the Schuppanzigh Quartet, the group which had premiered many of the master’s quartets. Regardless of the intent of those words, the music itself shows that even though Beethoven’s life was near its end, his mind was still so full of musical ideas that it seems he tried to get as many of them into this last quartet as he could. In the hands of a lesser ensemble, this music could sound disjunct, even ragged. In the hands of the Borromeo, which has recently completed performances of the entire Beethoven cycle of string quartets, it was masterful. It sparkled, it thundered, it sang, it brooded, it caressed, each mood in its own good time, each mood part of Beethoven’s humanity.

It’s interesting to note that the instruments used by the Borromeo Quartet range from Kim’s cello, made by Peregrino Zanetto around 1576 (one of the oldest extant cellos) to Motobuchi’s 1988 viola, made by Moes and Moes, a viola so large that it could be mistaken for a small child’s cello. Kim’s cello sounded so different from my recollection of it in previous hearings that I mentioned to her how its sound seemed more resonant than usual. Whether this came from new strings that she is trying or from a loose purfling, it makes this magnificent instrument even a better mate to Kitchen’s Guarnerius.

In summary: if you have not heard the Borromeo Quartet in live performance, add that to your “bucket list.” There are many excellent string quartets in the world, but none is better than the Borromeo. Their level of musicianship, combined with their total technical mastery of their instruments, makes them primus inter pares…the first among equals.