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Dynamic Barromeo is Museum Treasure

By Daniel Altman

CONCERT Borromeo Quartet

at the lsabella Stuart Gardner Museum

The Borromeo Quartet, Boston's young bid for chamber music superiority, gave a triumphal and absolutely unpretentious performance at the Isabelle Stewart Gardener Museum on Sunday.

The Quartet began with a brilliant and invigorating reading of Haydn's Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5. Their first impression held ture throughout the concert--that of a group able to convey wild abandon while retaining complete control of a work. The Borromeo have created a rare middle ground between, for example, the devouring intensity of the Emerson Quartet and the extreme refinement of the Cleveland Quartet. Still, the most incredible revelation was yet to come.

When cellist Yeesun Kim entered with the quartet's second motive, she introduced the audience to a mode of playing that can only be called chamber music perfection. Kim's bow moved so immaculately that one could not tell if it actually touched the string; from the listener's perspective, there was only a pristine sound that came from her direction. Moreover, Kim's ironclad intonation placed her in a class of her own. Her sound suits the medium perfectly--not overly soloistic, yet unquestionably striking. She is surely the most outstanding cellist in chamber music today.

Nicholas Kitchen, the first violinist, immediately showed his fine command of dynamics in the opening melody, but his tone became a little strident, undermining the carefree quality of the movement in its recapitulation. He fortunately saved some of the stridence for the bold, personal statements of the second movement's Largo ma non troppo. In the cantabile section of the movement, violist Hsin'Yun Hwang offered solo playing of utmost sincerity with none of dryness that pervades chamber music today.

The Trio of the third movement revealed the Borromeo's only substantial weakness. When the texture of this classical work thinned to only one or two instruments, the players failed to fill the space left by the tuttis. Despite the intimacy of these solo and quasi-solo sections, the instruments must expand their scope to aid the continuity of the piece; one should still feel that a quartet is on the stage.

The Quartet next presented "The Drinking Gourd," the final movement of Marty Ehrlich's String Quartet (1993). According to Ehrlich, the movement gets its name from a slogan of the Underground Railroad, "follow the drinking gourd." At first, it sounds like a syncopated roundance in uneven time. Much of its inspiration appears drawn from the stark landscapes that Barto'k portrayed in his string music. Soon, the cello enters with a jazz vamp, introducing the genre in which Ehrlich is most at home.

Throughout the work, the Borromeo displayed incredible synchrony, especially during extended pizzicato sections. They acted as an evolving organism, assuming new forms as the music changed, and undulating through its wide gestures.

As their closing work, the Quartet performed Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3. Unlike other quartets less given to subtlety, the Borromeo was clearly comfortable with the tender, non-symphonic nature of the music.

The entire Quartet showed a sort of 'updated Romantic' sense of time: not too obvious, but always just enough to suggest captivating emotions. Kim and Hwang's deep sounds--the violist's from a gigantic instrument--provided most of the warmth of the opening Andante espressivo-Allegro molto moderato.

Schumann chose a largely fugal Assai agitato for the second movement, saving his Adagio molto for the third and leaving the piece without a true dance movement. The Quartet navigated the fugue impeccably. By employing a multilayered system of dynamics, the main voice always remained prominent while the others maintained the tension. But before the audience could be thrown into the hysterics usually invoked by middle Beethoven, the Hwang and second violinist Ruggero Allafranchini ushered in a flowing lyrical line that could only be Schumann.

In the Adagio molto, Allafranchini supplied enough mugging at the audience for the entire concert. Perhaps this practice, not shared by the Borromeo's other members, prevented the movement from obtaining its proper introspective feel.

The last movement, marked Allegro molto vivace, alternates between two sections. The Borromeo's execution of the first recalled the sparkling bounce of the Haydn; the second possessed dignity and fitting selfassurance. Here, the Quartet's firm statements carried just the right exuberance through the finale.

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