[Note: This review was originally assigned by but not run in the Raleigh News & Observer. With the critic's permission and the N&O's consent, we are pleased to run it in CVNC to supplement our own coverage of this concert.*]
Sunday's Raleigh Chamber Music Guild concert was a perfect example of what that organization does so well - presenting intriguing combinations of artists in arresting repertory. For this season opener in Fletcher Opera Theater, legendary pianist Gary Graffman appeared with the youthful yet much-lauded Borromeo String Quartet in works that stretched over nearly three centuries.
Graffman already had had a thirty-year professional career when he developed a muscular dysfunction that ended his two-handed concertizing. Undaunted, he turned to left-hand-only literature, both existing and newly commissioned.
Graffman opened Sunday's program with a Bach chaconne, originally from Partita No. 2 for solo violin, transformed into a left-hand work by Brahms. Dramatically spotlighted on a darkened stage, Graffman confidently spun out the formal structures of piece, his subtle sense of dynamics constantly illuminating the line, sometimes turbulent, sometimes gentle. During the more densely written passages, played with admirable clarity and speed, Graffman tricked the ear into hearing another hand at the keyboard.
The BSQ joined Graffman for Jennifer Higdon's 1999 work, "Scenes From the Poet's Dream." Although originally composed for Graffman and another quartet, it's difficult to imagine a more intensely involving performance than the one here. With the group arranged on two levels (violinist Nicholas Kitchen below violinist William Fedkenheuer and violist Mai Motobuchi below cellist Yeesun Kim), the visual elements made as much impression as the musical ones.
The work's five short sections are programmatically titled with appropriately matching music. "Racing Through Stars" had skittering, sharp lines, constantly rising into the highest registers; "Summer Shimmers Across the Glass of Green Ponds" was hushed and languid, the piano providing scattered sparkling points, building to climatic outbursts. "I Saw the Electric Insects Coming" held a flurry of mechanical buzzing and scratching, the intense body language of the quartet transforming themselves into winged and segmented creatures.
Higdon wrote "In the Blue Fields The Sing" in memory of her brother, imbuing it with stages of grief, first soulfully quiet, then extremely agonized and finally sweetly introspective. The players lost themselves utterly in the music, their facial expressions vividly reflecting the moving score. The final section, "The Fast Dancers Dance Faster," was indeed a whirling rush, each quartet member alternately partnering the piano, then joining all together in a quirky dervish to finish. The tricky entrances and exacting coordination held no terrors for these five, drawing the audience into a fine example of contemporary music that is thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying.
The BSQ returned after intermission to play the Brahms String Quartet Op. 51, No. 1. The musicians emphasized all the typical Brahmsian elements of profound angst and great surges of feeling, yet found the lightness required for those little melancholic melodies that appear throughout. Watching Kim coax out a sonorous pizzicato, Motobuchi hunch forward in fierce attack and Kitchen become one with Fedkenheuer in duo sections, made it impossible not to become part of the performance.
Surely the BSQ will become known as one of the great quartets of the twenty-first century.
*CVNC is pleased to present not one but two reviews of this concert, thanks to the generosity of our writers. Among other things, this rare "second opinion" publication underscores the fact that critics don't invariably disagree!