Borromeo Quartet's Whirlwind Weekend

Monday, May 19, 2008

To attend the Borromeo String Quartet concerts at the Library of Congress over the weekend was to catch glimpses of chamber music's future. Dissolved was the image of churchly presentation of God-touched masterworks; one felt inserted into an airy, sunlit studio where artists struggle -- through skill, experimentation and work -- to define some deeply held yet amorphous vision.

The idea was to squeeze into less than 24 hours an artistic residency that usually evolves over weeks. In concerts on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, vivid readings of edgy contemporary pieces were paired with white-hot performances of tried-and-true warhorses. A Saturday morning workshop dealt with the mysteries of quartet playing; the session was filmed for the Web, one of the visit's several smart uses of technology.

To underscore its teaching role at the New England Conservatory, the Borromeo shared the stage on Friday with the Parker Quartet, an exciting graduate-level ensemble at the Boston school. Playing with a delicacy and precision that belied the members' youthful looks, the Parker gave full form to Gyorgy Kurtag's "Six Moments Musicaux," Op. 44, each miniature arising like a bountiful universe. Two of the Parker members joined the Borromeo for an explosive reading of Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," in which madly driving tempos and strongly drawn details sacrificed nothing in narrative flow.

At the workshop, discussions centered on the myriad issues of articulation, balance and phrasing that arise in working up any masterpiece. The New England Conservatory Quartet -- a college-level ensemble working with the Borromeo -- performed in a nicely turned account of Haydn's Quartet Op. 76, No. 4 ("Sunrise"). The Parker read again through a few of the "Moments," and the Borromeo brought out the dancing ecstasy of Beethoven's "Holy Song of Thanksgiving," from Op. 132.

The final concert was about string color and tone, as the Borromeo played the first movement of Beethoven's Quartet Op. 18, No. 3, on the library's priceless collection of Guarneri and Stradivarius instruments. Returning to its own instruments, the ensemble gave a blended, ruby-throated account of the complete work. The Parker closed out with Dvorak's flowing Quartet in E-flat, Op. 51; it went down like a well-deserved dessert after an intense, illuminating and ultimately enjoyable weekend.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

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