A great concert from the Borodin Quartet


(The New Zealand International Arts Festival and Chamber Music New Zealand)

String Quartets: No 2 in D (Borodin), No 8 in C minor, Op 110 (Shostakovich), No 1 in D, Op 1 (Tchaikovsky)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 6 March 2010, 7.30pm 

Occupying one of just two chamber music concerts in evening slots in the Festival, this superb group was co-promoted by Chamber Music New Zealand and, as far as the Festival is concerned, may well not have contributed to visitors coming from other parts of the country since the Borodin Quartet is touring all ten centers in which CMNZ performs. There was a full house, in any case.

Their all-Russian programme might not have been very adventurous but the pieces are undoubtedly among the greatest in the repertory.

The first thing that struck me was the feeling of ease and the absence of any ferocious intensity, even in the Shostakovich. The players have not given in to increasingly common habit of adopting casual, stylish clothes and refrain from speaking to the audience (nothing wrong with either of those, let me add). Instead, they simply did their work in the traditional manner, with the clear aim of removing their own individual personalities from the stage and giving the limelight to the music.

They might have played Borodin’s warm-hearted, beautiful second quartet five hundred times but that has not led to anything perfunctory in their approach; one’s attention turned to each player as solo passages arrived, wondering at the intimacy and finesse produced in the famous Nocturne and the effortless fast passagework by the two violins in the last movement, for example, that contributed to the air of delight that enveloped the audience.

Though I must express a slight regret that Shostakovich’s eighth quartet gets played almost to the exclusion of any of the others, most of which are fine works, this was a performance to treasure, as much for its restraint and the group’s determination, again, to dwell on the music’s beauty rather than to highlight the underlying anger and torment that the composer transforms into art. Its darkness, the signature sardonic quality of much of his music, its uneasiness and its cynical gaiety were all there: the group adheres to what I believe is the proper function of art – not to thrust horrors, perversions and ugliness at us but to universalize the nasty or tragic realities of life into shapes and sounds that employ ambiguity, symbolism and suggestion to evoke sympathetic response but that do not repel through literalness and crudity. The three awful down-strokes that return were never ugly, and the emotion was far better expressed through their restraint and beauty.

Tchaikovsky’s first quartet which, like the Borodin, contains one of the most popular and beautiful slow movements filled the second half. Its gentle, even rhythm and the limited range of pitches slowly generated excitement, creating an almost orchestral texture from Tchaikovsky’s skilled composition. The Andante Cantabile revealed again the players’ approach to such music; the shifts from note to note were utterly imperceptible, involving no glissandi, no stop and start; their legato character was immaculate. In the Scherzo the first violin’s febrile, almost bell-like tone turned the music into a spirited dance without motion; nothing bold or too emphatic was necessary to create its atmosphere. I admired the slide into pianissimo and the guileless, un-heralded end.

It was heartening to see the sold-out Town Hall and to think that far more than the normal number of people might have gone home with some inkling of what truly great music making is.

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