The Library of Congress tends to elicit strong performances from musicians who play there, as if the sense of history in the place makes it clear that this is not just any hall or any night. Furthermore, the Library and its audience are devoted to contemporary music, without any pretension or air of exclusivity. One always knows that, at an LoC concert like the one on Friday night featuring the Borromeo and Parker Quartets, Tchaikovsky may be the earliest the program goes in music history.
Borromeo String Quartet (photo by Liz Linder)
In an unannounced change, the program opened with a Romance for Violin and Piano by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939). The piece is in that composer's signature neotonal style, favoring mildly dissonant sounds, especially major-minor combinations, even ending on a major chord. With arch-Romantic yearning melodic lines from Nicholas Kitchen, the primarius of the Borromeo Quartet, and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, the work is a kind of Song without Words. It was pretty, but the move to the opening position made it, quite appropriately, an appetizer for the ears. Zwilich's autograph score was on display in a case in the Coolidge Auditorium's foyer, and the performers played from scanned images of it reproduced on laptop screens. That innovative move is part of the Library's increasing embrace of technology, which is also witnessed by the ongoing expansion of its Internet offerings.
The Web site will soon include sound files of Nicholas Kitchen, the primarius of the Borromeo Quartet, playing all five of the Library's Cremonese violins. That includes the most recently added one, the "Goldberg-Baron Vitta" Guarnerius, loaned indefinitely to Kitchen at a concert with the Borromeo Quartet last year, with the proviso that the instrument be brought home once a year. Kitchen will record Bach's D minor chaconne on each of the five violins.
This program drew me to the Library largely because of the two works that followed the Zwilich, especially György Kurtág's Six Moments Musicaux (op. 44), the fourth work by this beloved composer for string quartet. The Parker Quartet, reviewed last at the Corcoran in 2006, gave an astounding rendition of this complicated yet beautiful work, which synthesizes with remarkable economy several bits and snatches of compositional ideas. Deliciously dissonant chords were voiced to yield a glimmering or murky sheen, and the group's embrace of the very soft end of the dynamic spectrum made one sit up and listen. Ominous steps resounded in the second movement, and the third and fourth movements featured percussive pizzicati and arco stabs and grand homophonic howls that vanished to leave behind a pianissimo glow. The fifth movement's golden harmonics twittered like piping birds in tribute to Messiaen, followed by the sixth movement's tribute to Janáček, with its brief section played with mutes, ritually put in place and then removed.
Composer György Kurtág (b. 1926)
The Borromeo Quartet then played Béla Bartók's sixth quartet, which opened with a tragic, consumed viola sola from Mai Motobuchi, playing intensely, eyes closed. This Bartók was as an antidote to the Emerson Quartet's overly muscular approach, more warmth than violence. It was not that the Marcia of the second movement was any less barbaric, but there was a note of hopeless plodding to it. The third movement's Burletta was a drunken, loopy waltz, with beats dropped to make it lop-sided, and the last movement came full circle back to the agonizing melancholy of that opening viola sola. The combination of the Borromeo Quartet with the violist and cellist from the Parker Quartet did not seem to meld effortlessly on the concluding work, Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, op. 70. The group bit into the opening phrase, an aggressive tone that lasted for the entire work. It was a startlingly ferocious approach utterly at odds with the bucolic reading of the chamber orchestra arrangement heard from the Australian Chamber Orchestra last year. It made for some disappointing stridency, especially in the high ranges of the violins and viola, as the group struggled to find greater realms of sound.
Daniel Ginsberg, Borromeo Quartet's Whirlwind Weekend (Washington Post, May 19)
The final concerts at the Library of Congress will feature the Pacifica Quartet in an Elliott Carter program (May 29, 8 pm) and the Barnatan-Ferschtman-Weilerstein Trio (May 31, 8 pm). The same week, as part of the American Liszt Society's meeting, pianist Michele Campanella will play an all-Liszt concert at the Library of Congress (May 30, 8 pm).