Borromeo Quartet goes all-digital, but cluttered delivery weakens performance


The Borromeo String Quartet. (Eli Akerstein)
March 11, 2013

The Borromeo String Quartet has always been one of the most thought-provoking groups on the concert scene. Rather than spread out (into crossover and other non-classical genres), they drill down, seeking ways to get at ever-deeper musical truths in standard repertoire. Last Sunday evening, at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, the foursome again declined to do anything fancy, simply offering three consecutive works of Beethoven: Op. 74, 95 and 127.

The presentation was anything but routine, however. The Borromeo is now an all-digital group, playing from laptops which display full scores (not just their individual parts). And they prefaced each piece with a discussion and projected display of holograph manuscripts, even playing one movement of Op. 95 with the manuscript scrolling through behind them on the acoustical shell.

Of course, all this is secondary to the playing, and the group has always blended top-quality quartet discipline with insightful creativity. But Sunday’s performance was not among the finest I’ve heard from them. I do wonder if the laptops are, on balance, a plus. With so much more visual information to follow as they play, there is less eye contact than with many other groups. And the need to constantly hit the page-turn pedal adds a third limb that each musician must control. All four are fine artists, but they are juggling more real-time demands than other quartets, and the net result isn’t much of an improvement, to these ears.

Intonation was generally good, but with more lapses than I’ve heard in the past. And while their phrasing and overall structural shaping has always been one of the Borromeo’s strengths, this performance was weakened throughout by inattention to two basics. Beethoven’s many “sf” markings (a strong accent) were far too mild, and the group did not tend sufficiently to loud chords and short notes, letting them die without vibrato. In the JCC’s dry hall, this was a particular drawback.

Moreover, through their detailed study of the manuscripts, the group has acquired such familiarity and freedom with the music that it sounds almost lackadaisical at times. The first movements of both Op. 95 and Op. 127 quartets offered so many different tempos as to threaten basic coherence of the form. First violinist Nicholas Kitchen leads the group in a constant search for the right color and feeling, but they need to be careful not to wing it too much.

style@washpost.com

Battey is a freelance writer.

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