Although the Borromeo String Quartet has performed in Durham many times, and has also played a now legendary concert of all six Bartók string quartets at Duke University, inexplicably, until tonight they had never played on the Chamber Arts Society of Durham series. This has been a head-scratching omission for the past 10-15 years, partly because of the hometown affiliation of first violinist Nicholas Kitchen, but most of all because even after hearing some of the biggest and most revered string quartets throughout the Triangle this season, the Borromeo remains at the apex of this very crowded field. The lengthy waiting list and fierce competition to gain entry to Reynolds Auditorium is further proof of the recognition of this magnificent ensemble in this long overdue event.
Joining the Quartet was pianist Gary Graffman in a program with a curious mix of the “three B’s” in addition to a rarely performed and once-in-a-lifetime orchestrated chamber work by Erich Korngold. Although there is certainly more than enough existing repertoire to keep even the finest string quartets busy for the rest of their lives, Kitchen has made a practice of adapting other works for his quartet, especially compositions by J.S. Bach. Tonight we heard his arrangement of Bach’s “St. Anne” fugue from the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, S. 552. If, like me, you like this greatest of contrapuntal music clearly and cleanly delineated as you would get from a string quartet or brass quintet, this was a pristine roadmap of the genius of Bach. It also introduced us to the impeccable intonation, glorious tonal timbres and rhythmic brilliance of the rest of the ensemble: second violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim.
The second “B” of the evening belonged to Beethoven as we heard a performance of the composer’s Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, Op. 74. This work acquired the nickname “Harp,” ostensibly because of its harp-like arpeggiated pizzicati, which is actually quite common. Written in 1809, this quartet straddles Beethoven’s middle period and his revolutionary late quartets. In form, this is a somewhat traditional four-movement classical work, although you definitely feel and hear the envelope stretching to almost the breaking point. Having had the privilege to hear the Borromeo Quartet’s traversal of all of the Beethoven quartets over a three year period at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham, it was certainly no surprise that this was a performance to be savored and remembered. The term “warhorse” or “museum piece” has no place in any performance by this ensemble and it was especially evident here. Great musicians reveal something new or somehow inject an emotion or reaction into music that we may have heard hundreds of times. Throw in effortless and playful virtuosity as well as beauty of tone and an eerily telepathic connection among the four players, and you get the sense that you are only now truly hearing this piece for the first time.
Include a pianist as guest artist with a string quartet, and there seems to be a musical statute that you will hear either the Brahms, Dvorák or Schumann piano quintet – all of which are established masterpieces. However, because of guest pianist Gary Graffman’s 1979 injury that left him without the use of his right hand, the second half of tonight’s program was a mixture of some very unusual works. The first, which I have heard this artist perform before, did not work so well. Our third “B,” Johannes Brahms, wrote a collection of piano studies for the left hand alone and included Bach’s monumental Chaconne, the final movement of his Partita in D minor for unaccompanied violin. I have heard some respected music professors and writers call this possibly the greatest piece of music ever written, and that, at least, cannot be ruled out. It’s hard to tell whether it was just the transfer to keyboard, or even my bias as a string player, but Mr. Graffman’s performance was a rather flaccid and tepid affair. I don’t recall ever hearing, or even seeing in recordings, any of the other pieces from Brahms’ left-hand studies, so perhaps it’s time to retire this private study from the public concert stage.
It was also hard to get a sense of Mr. Graffman’s remarkable musicianship and one-handed technique from the Bach, but that was quickly revealed in Korngold’s Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano, Left Hand, Op. 23. (Just try and find another work with that exact lineup!) Korngold was a genuine wunderkind in his native Czechoslovakia as evidenced by testimonials from the likes of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. He fortuitously found himself temporarily in Hollywood in 1938 as the Nazi scourge strengthened and remained there to make a career as one of the great film composers. That background was especially apparent in the first movement of this work as the oft-used B-A-C-H motive came perilously close to a “Bach goes Hollywood” joke. However, this unusual chamber work grew on me gradually in each of the next four movements, especially in the ravishing Lied fourth, which ended way too quickly. There is an abundance of extreme virtuosic passages and rhythmic complexity that makes this a joy to listen to and one that makes you want to search out a recording.