Borromeo String Quartet brings idiomatic verve to Dvořák program at Gardner Museum

October 7, 2013 at 11:49 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Borromeo Quartet performed a Dvorak program with pianist Paavali Jumppanen Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum.

Even as the first bars of Dvořák’s last string quartet unfolded in Calderwood Hall Sunday afternoon, it was already apparent that the Borromeo String Quartet is an ensemble that has a clear affinity for the Czech composer’s music.

The repertoire they performed made for ample source material. Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op. 105 and Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, featuring pianist Paavali Jumppanen, were the latest installments in the Dvořák Project, the ensemble’s exploration of the composer’s music begun last year as part of the Gardner’s Museum’s Sunday Concert Series.

The concerts have furthered the reputation of an ensemble already known for their intimate performances of Beethoven and Bartók quartets. Violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesum Kim, reading from scores on four MacBook Pros, gave a pensive rendering of one of Dvořák’s most dramatic chamber works.

Completed in 1895, the final string quartet marked a turning point for the composer. He had just returned to Bohemia from his American visit and turned his attention to writing more programmatic pieces.

The Quartet in A-flat is a work of organic construction where melodic fragments shift in thrilling and unexpected ways. Dance-like motives flow out of the earthy harmonies of the opening movement’s slow introduction. Syncopated rhythms and a soaring waltz melody give the second movement wide ranges of color. The Borromeo musicians handled each with aplomb.

The ensemble’s warm blend brought aching lyricism to the third movement’s dark chromatic textures. Their crisp and bouncy rhythms lightened the mood in the middle section. In the finale, quick-turning motives from Kim’s cello spread through the rest of the ensemble. Fugal lines dissolved after only a few measures into a rich ensemble chords. The dance-like character of the music gelled when Borromeo opened the throttle for a spirited conclusion.

After intermission, the talented Paavali Jumppanen joined Kim, Motobuchi, and Kitchen for the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87.

The work, which Dvořák completed in 1889, is a true quartet in every sense of the word. Martial figures and mournful solo phrases pass with ease between each musician. Twinkling piano figures and lilting string phrases blend in a wash of orchestral-like color.

Throughout, Jumppanen expertly performed the rolling chords and brimming melodies with pearly tone. The string trio swelled and relaxed the sound in impeccable blend to fit the music’s contrasting moods. Kim played with singing and mournful quality, giving palpable depth to the opening cello line in the second movement. Only once did the strings’ enthusiasm result in some wavering intonation in the movement’s more agitated passages.

The last two movements featured some of the sharpest playing from the ensemble. Triplet figures frolicked with vitality in the third, and, in the finale, whole sections thundered with dramatic weight.

Paavali Jumppanen and violinist Corey Cerovsek will perform Beethoven’s final three violin sonatas, 1:30 p.m. Octiber 13 at the Gardner Museum. gardnermuseum.org; 617-278-5156

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