An Ultra-Emotional Beethoven and Ottorino on Speed
BURLINGAME, CA---A high-spirited Canadian quartet showed how it’s done in a decidedly red-blooded mix of Beethoven-cum-moderns at the Kohl Mansion Nov. 8.

The youthful Borealis String Quartet plays with a passion I haven’t heard since the heyday of the fabled Budapest Quartet in the 1950s. It’s diametrically opposite to what has been called the American chamber music style of strict structure and tempo, as well as a relatively formal approach to performance.

Borealis in contrast lets it all hang out; indeed you felt that first violinist Patricia Shih was so close to tumbling from her chair with her intense body English that a seat belt would have been prudent (Ultimately, she hooked her foot around a chair leg in order to stay securely aboard). It’s not sloppy play, it’s extremely dramatic play.

This is one of the most closely mutually attuned quartets I’ve ever encountered. Some of the musicians have memorized their parts, allowing them to watch each other more than the scores themselves, and to react in concert (no pun intended). There is great precision and refined tuning, but also a dazzling surge and ebb like waves encroaching from a distant hurricane.

You could put the Borealis’ dramatization of Beethoven’s colossal, moody “Rasoumovsky” Quartet Op. 59 No. 2 in E minor alongside the Budapest quartet’s recordings of it (though clearly the Canadians pay much more attention to proper tuning than the flamboyantly cavalier Budapest ensemble ever did).

Have you ever had a piece of music leaving you in unremitting ecstasy when heard year after year? This one does it to me every time---it’s the one I’d take to the desert island, assuming that a musician foursome is willing to tag along to play it. Its sense of furious melancholy and cycles of relief enters an unsettled world untouched by any of Beethoven’s predecessors. There is a Scherzo with tricky syncopation, and with quotations of a timeless Russian tune recast as a church hymn in the opera “Boris Godunov.”

Two attractive works less than a century old took up the rest of the program at the Kohl Mansion. I particularly liked the one-movement “Ashes” (2007) by the Canadian Kelly-Marie Murphy. It features some massive outbursts, almost like lightning bolts, separated by some wisps of utmost delicacy. This is a programmatic tone-poem apparently inspired by an out-of-control fire---only 11 minutes long, but providing roaring intensity. Murphy’s style features a bit of Webern, a bit of Bartok, a bit of Ravel, along with a wealth of her own originality. There are even some intriguing microtones and melismas as pitches slide around deliberately

I don’t believe that Ottorino Respighi ever conceived of his “Quartetto Dorico” (1924) as anywhere near so overwrought as in this reading. It was like Ottorino on speed. But he made an effective weave of four interconnected movements in the Dorian mode (which, on the piano, corresponds to the unusual scale of white notes starting on D). The play in the main hall of the mansion was so emotional that even the floor vibrated---you could feel the music almost as much as you heard it.

BACKGROUNDER---All the Borealis players except for cellist Shih-Lin Chen from Taiwan are founding members, dating back to quartet’s debut at the millennium…Music at Kohl is a series presenting touring chamber ensembles in the Kohl Mansion, which has had quite a stormy history of its own. Fred Kohl had built this structure with the massive central hall worthy of a Tudor king shortly before World War One to provide his musical wife with a proper site to sing. She left him a couple of years later to move to Europe. Kohl eventually committed suicide. The recent history of the mansion has been a much happier one, serving as the site of many weddings.
D. Rane Danubian,
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