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MUSIC REVIEW

Borromeos zero in on late Beethoven

The Borromeo String Quartet performing on Tuesday. The Borromeo String Quartet performing on Tuesday. (Eli Akerstein)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 6, 2009
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Many chamber ensembles regard Beethoven's five late quartets as hallowed ground, a kind of musical holy of holies. I know more than one player who actually keeps an eye out for their opus numbers at large in the world, regarding them only half-jokingly as possessing talismanic powers. (Good things, for example, surely lie at the end of any highway exit marked as No. 132.)

Ensembles don't tend to program these works often since they are so difficult to play, and they usually appear one at a time, since their beauty and expressive depths have a way of dwarfing whatever else happens to be sharing the program. When the late quartets are spotted in clusters, it's often at the very end of a season-long Beethoven cycle, where they beckon as a heady reward for braving the long journey.

Or, once in a while, they simply show up out the blue because a quartet feels like playing them. That seemed to be the case on Tuesday night at Jordan Hall when the Borromeo String Quartet, as New England Conservatory's quartet-in-residence, bravely traversed three mighty late quartets - Op. 132, 131, and 130 - on a single program.

First violinist Nicholas Kitchen offered some opening remarks from the stage and then sat down in front of his laptop to play. Yes, his laptop. Three of the four Borromeos on Tuesday night used computers as a way of viewing the full score without having to turn an unwieldy number of pages. They controlled the music's scroll across the screen with foot pedals. I confess I found it a bit visually jarring to have the iconic cluster of four music stands replaced with something more suggestive of a study group in an undergraduate dorm, but one adjusts quickly, and there is another age-old solution for such situations: close your eyes.

The Borromeo after all is sounding good these days. The quartet's newest member, second violinist Kristopher Tong, seems more comfortable in the mix and his playing on Tuesday was clean and lithe. Violist Mai Motobuchi had a full and rich tone, cellist Yeesun Kim's deep sound anchored the group, and Kitchen, who is married to Kim, played with a natural grace and unmannered eloquence.

Over the course of the evening there were some lapses in tuning and the occasional smudged runs but overall these were vibrant and highly accomplished performances. The many tricky transitions in the Quartet Op. 131 were executed with unfailing delicacy. The famed "Grosse Fuge" had muscle and coherence despite arriving at the end of an epic evening. And the slow movement of Op. 132 - surely the most sublime 17 minutes of music Beethoven ever composed - drifted off the stage with prayerful serenity. Admission to the concert was free, making the whole night feel like a gift to the city.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

BORROMEO STRING QUARTET At: New England Conservatory, Tuesday night

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