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MUSIC REVIEW

Borromeo Quartet Confirms Expertise

April 21, 1998|DANIEL CARIAGA

The Borromeo Quartet's return to Southern California, Sunday afternoon on the Coleman Chamber Concerts series, offered clean-lined Haydn, the revival of Leon Kirchner's astoundingly still-thorny Quartet No. 1 from 1949 and Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet. The performance, in Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, showed the ensemble as accomplished and resourceful as remembered.

There was something anticlimactic in the program-closing Beethoven work, however; it seemed to represent a comfort zone rather than an aggressive statement. As such, the reading had color and contrasts, a virtuosic smoothness one now comes to expect in every visiting string quartet. But the Beethovenian itch, the core of musical pioneering in every one of this composer's works, never rose out of this unblemished performance.

More disturbing, for several good reasons, was Kirchner's early Quartet, an essay in 1940s alienation, toughness and a grating atonal style. One expected long ago to see this style become old-fashioned and innocuous. But no: It still grates; it remains knotty and hard to apprehend; it may never be listener-friendly.

The high-achieving Borromeo ensemble--violins Nicholas Kitchen and Ruggero Allifranchini, viola Hsin-Yun Huang and cello Yeesun Kim--made sense of the rugged work and gave it a sound-narrative one could nearly follow. It may even be as important a piece as these players clearly think it is. But as one who used to admire Kirchner's individuality, I now wonder what purpose all this aural unpleasantness serves, 49 years later.

High accomplishment, solid musical continuity and transparent textures made the group's playing of Haydn's Quartet in G, Opus 77, No. 1, a most attractive opener.

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