Borealis String Quartet

Date 8 August 2006, 10.30 Venue Christ Church Cathedral

Mozart String Quartet in F Major K. 590 Puccini Crisantemi Respighi "Doric" Quartet

Violin Patricia Shih Violin Yuel Yawney Viola Nikita Pogrebnoy Cello Shin Li Chen

Reviewer J H Stape

The first string quartet-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, the Borealis, formed in 2000, is a youthful group, yet further proof of the astonishing vitality of UBC's Faculty of Music, which has been going from strength to strength over the past decade.

This concert on Vancouver Festival's second day -- certainly a rare and in Vancouver almost unique opportunity to hear chamber pieces by Puccini and Respighi -- offered several pleasures, including the debut of the quartet's new cellist. Given that, the balance between players was well maintained (if at times the first violinist's sound -- very pleasing in itself --was somewhat too forward).

The Mozart quartet, a very late work, offered music of bright depths and deep gracefulness. It got a crisp and subtle reading, with many elegant touches, that revealed its core, after an opening that was, as it were, the Smile of Reason set to music.

The taut andante and the brief third movement menuetto were especially appealing, the melodic lines effectively brought out, and the closing allegro movement even edgy and nervous. The playing was intellectually and emotionally committed, though at rare moments somewhat warmer and more Romantic than might be expected or warranted.

In a concert of rapid shifts of sentiment, the Puccini piece, written as an elegy for the Duke of Savoy, plumbed sorrow and loss with a ravishing intensity. Deeply moving, this is music for the heart, having a vocal character that was richly exploited and clearly understood. Mournful, even tearful, it offers no sweet promise of renewal and is all the more touching for that honesty.

The real revelation of the morning was the Respighi. The composer is associated in the concert hall with the rather conventional tone poem, too often trotted out, I pini di Roma. The quartet aches for a new vocabulary, with sudden shifts in mood and sonority yearning for soundscape that Shostakovich or even Shoenberg made their territory but remaining solidly post-Romantic in idiom. Broad and expansive at its opening, with bold colours the principal emphasis, the material -- demandingly developed -- moves into gleams and flashes against a dark background.

The Borealis's vigorous and assured performance was warmly greeted by the nearly sold-out house that had gathered at an odd hour of the morning to listen to music of singular interest and character.

© 2006 J H Stape