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A Well-Tempered Reinvention

Borromeo String Quartet records first violinist Nicholas Kitchen's arrangement of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One.

The globe-trotting Borromeo String Quartet completed NEC's Artist Diploma program in 1992, and has served as quartet-in-residence since then. The group's travel routine has great relevance to their most recent recording, while it was a seemingly unrelated Beethoven quartet project that started first violinist Nicholas Kitchen thinking about the possible value of a string quartet version of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, originally published in 1722 (Book One) and 1742 (Book Two). This led back in time to Mozart's trio and quartet fugues as inspiration for Kitchen's own Bach transcription.

For nearly three hundred years, The Well-Tempered Clavier has nourished classical music like the root system of a great tree. What if the music was brought to life in the way a quartet makes music, where four "singers" bring their combined might to each detail of the music?

But such an ambitious project required time, as Kitchen explains in his notes, "written on the bus in Romania, November 4, 2016."

Beijing traffic was what opened the door to further progress! Every time that we moved anywhere in the city to rehearse or play, we spent nearly an hour in traffic. Not having to drive myself, I decided to dive into the project that had been waiting so long—arranging Book One for string quartet. And indeed, after a few more traffic jams, I had a good start.

Work resumed while the quartet was teaching at the Taos School of Music in New Mexico: "As the plane touched down in Boston after the four weeks, I finished the last notes of the last fugue!"

What have Kitchen and his quartet partners learned from performing and recording this music?

Each pitch and all of its surrounding intervals demand to be heard with exquisite intensity by all four of us—all of the time. If you bring the intensity of listening to any music, it will be more beautiful, but The Well-Tempered Clavier demands it. It will not even begin to come to life without it. These pieces are soulful, joyous, witty, and intense in a way that must be felt completely, but that does not benefit from exaggeration. This is music of tremendous emotion, but it does not use drama to bring its ideas to life.

While the Borromeo String Quartet has now performed this music in various concert settings, those venues have previously skirted New York. Now, excerpts from Book One will have their New York debut on October 20 in Carnegie Hall. "Pretty fun for music that is nearly 300 years old!!!" notes Kitchen.

And the roots of Bach's tree have continued to nourish NEC's musicians over the past 150 years, as seen and heard on this page.