One cannot but be ambivalent about Library of Congress concerts. Its Coolidge Auditorium is one of America’s most important venues for chamber music, with a dazzling history of performances by the world’s greatest artists and premieres of great works. The price is right (you pay only a modest handling fee for tickets), and the library’s collection of Cremonese instruments and Tourte bows offers an incalculable sonic bonus to visiting groups who use them, as the Borromeo String Quartet did Saturday evening. It recently acquired a resplendent new Steinway grand. And its showcasing of new composers produced more 20th-century chamber music masterpieces than any other patron or institution.
On the other hand, there’s no on-site parking, and patrons are subjected to security screening simply to enter the building, ensuring that every performance begins late. The Borromeo’s concert was marred by a low mechanical rumble from somewhere in the building for most of the second half, likely ruining the recording it was making. This has happened before.
And what’s with the programming? Why interrupt a string quartet concert so that one member can play a lengthy Beethoven sonata with a guest pianist? Violinist Nicholas Kitchen’s rambling, free-association address before the sonata shed no light on the matter. Why not play a piano quintet?
As for the Borromeo, it is one of the more intriguing groups today. It is, as far as I know, the only quartet in which the violist sits on the left, next to the first violin (switching traditional places with the second violinist). That inside spot seems to be a graveyard no matter who sits there. Violist Mai Motobuchi, an excellent player, disappeared into the texture; her crucial triplets underpinning the second theme of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet were all but inaudible.
More fascinating still is the quartet’s reading off of laptops, again unique. With a foot pedal to change pages, the members play from full scores, including holographs when available. This undoubtedly leads to efficiencies in developing corporate interpretations. But in performance, we worry that as they move their feet around at moments of agitation, someone might accidentally hit their pedal early. Has that never happened (and what would they do if it did)?
The concert began with Gunther Schuller’s String Quartet No. 4, not a new work but a very fine one. Schuller’s harmonic language is in the acidic Wuorinen/Harbison mold, but the string writing is strong and effective, and the underlying musical structures are perceivable and logical.
Whatever he was doing there, pianist Seymour Lipkin turned in a dry but finely etched reading of the Beethoven sonata. The Borromeo, oddities aside, is a superb quartet: four distinct and interesting musical personalities offering bracing, highly committed playing.
Battey is a freelance writer.