A Dynamic Conclusion for Autumn’s Quartet Season

United StatesUnited States Schubert and Dvořák: Borromeo String Quartet, Kim Kashkashian (viola), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 14.12.2014 (BJ)

Schubert: String Quartet in G major, K. 887
Dvořák: String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97

The superb series of quartet concerts presented this autumn by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society brought the society’s year to a dynamic conclusion with this performance by the Borromeo Quartet, quartet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music since 1992.

With first violinist Nicholas Kitchen willing to take all possible risks in the quest for intensity of expression, without ever failing to surmount the consequent technical challenges, the group’s performance of Schubert’s last string quartet had a larger-than-life quality about it. Yeesun Kim, like Kitchen a Curtis graduate and one of the Borromeo’s original members, is a cellist with phenomenal strength of tone. In both the first two movement and the magical Andante that follows it, her contribution drew every ounce of eloquence from the glorious lines Schubert gave her to play, while Kristopher Tong on second violin and Mai Motobuchi on viola fulfilled their contrasting roles in the ensemble texture with equal skill and musicianship.

We tend to think of Schubert as a gentler, more lyrical spirit than his older contemporary Beethoven, but in such a realization this greatest of his works in the genre comes across as fully comparable to anything Beethoven wrote in dramatic power. In this work, the drama comes to a head in the finale. Here I admired the group’s readiness to give full emphasis to the fz accent that Schubert consistently placed on the fourth note of the main theme at every one of its appearances. Initially a B flat, that note is emblematic of the work’s central tonal argument, which is the home key of G major’s ongoing dispute with its tonic minor. And each time the phrase recurred, the Borromeos’ slight stretching of the rhythm showed that such a forceful accent must have metrical as well as dynamic consequences.

After intermission, Kim Kashkashian, a star violist eminently worthy to be heard in such splendid company, joined the group in a performance of Dvořák’s E-flat-major Quintet that similarly impressed most immediately with its sheer dynamism. The relative introspection of some passages was by no means neglected, and both Ms. Kashkashian and Ms. Motobuchi on first viola turned many an eloquent phrase. But it was the boisterous good humor of the work that suitably dominated the feeling of the performance, culminating in Kitchen’s tireless articulation of the rhythmically simple—even simplistic—theme of the finale. Dvořák, a violist himself, distributes his melodic plums equitably among all five instruments, and it was thrilling to hear an ensemble in which every member seized on his or her opportunities with the utmost relish.

I confess I could not help wondering what so dynamically commanding a group of players would sound like in, say, Mozart. But sufficient unto the day was the good thereof, and I have little doubt that these musicians can trim their sails appropriately to whatever musical winds may be blowing.


Bernard Jacobson