Borromeo String Quartet at Weill Recital Hall – Schoenberg No.1 & Schubert’s Death and the Maiden

String Quartet No.1 in D minor, Op.7
String Quartet in D minor, D810 (Death and the Maiden)

Borromeo String Quartet [Nicholas Kitchen & Kristopher Tong (violins), Mai Motobuchi (viola) & Yeesun Kim (cello)]

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 2 December, 2011
Venue: Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Borromeo String Quartet. Photograph: Christian SteinerNicholas Kitchen gave a lengthy introduction to the Schoenberg in which he demonstrated the work’s motifs and explained its complicated structure. In his articulate presentation he compared the work to a coral reef in which each aspect looks different but recognizable in an organic whole. Unfortunately, the performance did not show enough of the colorful variation he described. This thorny work of about 45 uninterrupted minutes confounded its first audience. Its extreme expressivity and lack of traditional harmonic grounding may no longer shock, but it is impossible not to have deep respect for performers who can play it with technical confidence, as the Borromeo musicians did. They began with the smoothly blended tone and precision of intonation that is their trademark; however the prettiness of their sound soon became boring. The entwined contrapuntal lines never became proper musical phrases. Kitchen eventually produced a less cloyingly sweet tone, and was pleasingly bright at times, yet he failed to portray any colors in the darker side of the spectrum. In the hauntingly chilly slower ‘movement’ (Mässig: langsam Viertel, Mai Motobuchi’s solos nicely captured the extreme mood transformation, and the sensitive accompaniment of the other three musicians was one of the rare glimpses of interpretative brilliance. The final section – Mässig: heiter – was indeed cheerful, but blandly so, only coming alive in its final moments. The introspective final phrases, at last encircling a tonal center of D major, were lovingly rendered. If only the players had as much to say throughout the work as Schoenberg had intended.

Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet was an inspired programmatic pairing, reflecting extreme drama and morbidity, particularly in the Andante and its variations. It is unclear if Schubert based this movement upon an earlier song of his, yet the tumultuousness of emotions reflects the title’s anguish. The musicians began the work with an exciting intensity that they were unable to maintain. Kitchen’s phrasing was awkward and stilted. The players then made a confusing choice to take the development section at a much slower tempo than the exposition and recapitulation, which allowed the initial excitement to dissipate into laboriousness. They created an appropriately grim color at the start of the Andante, yet Kitchen’s phrasing did not allow any room for breath. In the third Variation, his trade off with the cello line was rigid and unfeeling. The lower strings were consistently impressive in their dark shadings. The Borromeo Quartet boasts of its innovative use of MacBook Pro laptops in place of sheet music. Perhaps this explains the purely mechanical nature that prevailed in the scherzo – stuck in its heaviness – and the finale (Presto) being very fast yet lacking drive and accentuation: a mellow version of an intensely animated movement.

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