Borodin Quartet in Wellington – Old-World elegance, universal beauty

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

MYASKOVSKY – String Quartet No.13 Op.86
SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No.11 in F Minor Op.122
BEETHOVEN – String Quartet in B-flat Op.130

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 16th October, 2014

Mention the name “Borodin Quartet” and the average classical music-lover’s eyes will either take on a dreamy, far-away look as if contemplating whole histories of music-making in every prestigious place imaginable, or else flash with sudden excitement at the prospect of encountering this world-renowned group’s playing. Last week in Wellington, chamber-music enthusiasts had the chance to indulge in either or both reactions, as the Borodins (their 2014 lineup of players, of course) gave a concert in the city as part of a Chamber Music New Zealand tour.

The group was formed in 1945, though with a different name, the Moscow Conservatoire Quartet (all of its members then and since, have been graduates of the Moscow Conservatory) – interestingly, the first ‘cellist of the group was none other than Mstislav Rostropovich, though he left shortly afterwards to concentrate on his solo career, his place being taken by Valentin Berlinsky, the group’s ‘cellist for the next sixty-two years!.

In 1955 the group adopted its present name, in homage to the composer Alexander Borodin. Since then the quartet’s personnel has changed entirely and repeatedly, with violinist Ruben Agharonian (the present leader) and violist Igor Naidin joining in 1996, ‘cellist Vladimir Baishin in 2007 and violinist Sergey Lomovsky the most recently recruited member, in 2011. This was the quartet’s sixth visit to New Zealand, the first (with four different players) being in 1965, and the most recent prior to this present one being in 2010.

The ensemble first encountered its great compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich in 1946 – though Shostakovich’s favourite quartet remained the Beethoven Quartet (who premiered all but two of his fifteen quartets) the Borodins also worked with the composer on each of the individual works, giving their interpretations a unique flavour and insight. The Quartet actually recorded two complete cycles, the first at the time when only thirteen quartets had been written by the composer, and the second following the latter’s death in 1975.

On tour this time round the group brought the Eleventh String Quartet, written just after the composer’s Thirteenth Symphony had been lambasted and banned by the Soviet authorities, on account of its controversial subject-matter, the setting of texts by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The Eleventh Quartet is, by comparison an essentially “private” work, made up of seven shortish, continuously-played movements. Though not as powerfully-projected a work as some of its fellows, the music throughout cast its own darkly-fscinating spell in the Borodins’ hands.

Beginning with a melancholic, somewhat elegiac opening, the music quickly and sure-footedly moved through its various sequences. There were ironic exchanges between an obsessively repeated figure and upwardly-mocking glissandi, which were abruptly interrupted by explosive, and energetic outbursts producing the most amazingly resonant chord-dissonances. Everything was suddenly whirled away by molto-perpetuo violin figures which did their best to ignore shouts of disquiet from the other strings – the composer ironically gave this section the tiltle “Humoreske”!

Perhaps the “dark heart” of the work came with the “Elegy” section, where Shostakovich quoted the Funeral March from the “Eroica”, a section of the work written to commemorate the death a year before of the Beethoven Quartet’s ‘cellist, Vassily Shirinsky. After this, an epilogue quoted from material heard right at the opening of the quartet, by now, seeming a world away. As performed this evening by the Borodins, the work was, in places very much a memorable “Fled is that music? – do I wake or sleep?” kind of listening experience.

The Shostakovich quartet had been preceded on the program by a work from Nikolay Myaskovsky, born in Poland to Russian parents in 1881. I’d not heard a lot of his music, with the exception of his Symphony No.21, dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and recorded with the orchestra by Morton Gould.  Myaskovsky’s String Quartet No.13 Op.86 was his very last work to be published, and was in fact dedicated to the same Beethoven Quartet that had championed Shostakovich’s music.

The music actually won the composer a posthumous Stalin Prize, in marked contrast to the reception a few years earlier accorded his 26th Symphony, denounced by the infamous “Zhdanov decree” in 1948 (along with fellow-composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev), for “formalist tendencies” – i.e. music “inaccessible to the people”.  But I thought it was interesting that a friend I talked with during the concert’s interval found the Myaskovsky work “bland and ordinary”. I must record that, after some discussion, we begged to differ on that point!

Certainly in comparison with the Shostakovich work, Myaskovsky’s music wasn’t difficult or challenging – instead, it was evocative, colourful, energetic, and quixotic, in places even volatile in its unexpected changes of metre and contrasts of mood. The quartet’s opening made me think of Pasternak and his “Doctor Zhivago”, a vein of melancholy informing the music that the Borodins kept taut and sharply-focused, never allowing over-indulgence of tone or phrasing. The “presto fantastic” of the second movement was very much that – urgent and unsettled, interchanging dotted rhythms with whirling triplets, before precipitously plunging into a dark, slow waltz, like a kind of lament – we were kept on the edges of our “listening-seats” throughout by the composer’s quixotic sensibilities and the deftness of the Borodins’ playing.

The richly-melodic Andante which began the slow movement brought an unashamedly nostalgic ambience to the fore, the music’s development reiterating the same themes but with different voices and different kinds of emphasis – very lovely. The finale’s emphatic opening “bounce” introduced the first of many sequences, all too rapidly “crowding-in” to do full justice to in print, but tossed off with great élan by the musicians, complete with a wonderful “surprise” ending.

So, with two very different “Russian” evocations behind us, each fascinating in its own individual way, we squared up after the interval to the Borodins’ playing of one of the “great” Beethoven quartets. This was Op.130 in B-flat, which the New Zealand String Quartet had “spoiled” us with in concert a couple of years ago by playing the composer’s original ending to the work, the astounding “Grosse Fugue”. We had to content ourselves here with Beethoven’s revised ending, a substitute finale whose cheerful and disconcerting garrulity the Borodins were able to temporarily reconcile me to.

And the Quartet’s performance of the remainder of the work brought handsome rewards.  Throughout the concert one noticed how the players had the knack of creating tension and focus without apparent external effort – it all seemed to be coming from the instruments rather than from the players’ use of them, to a disconcerting degree, in places, though the sounds certainly conveyed all that the music carried. If less involving on a visceral level than, say, the playing of the NZSQ, the Borodins made up for this with their surety of application of musical values.

So, the first movement of Op.130 was poised, balanced and aristocratic, making the following Presto movement more spectral and agitated than usual, the triplet section dispatched with astonishing virtuosity, and the reprise of the opening like a devil pursuing and snapping at a pair of heels! The Andante con moto had an incredible lightness of utterance, seeming to rise above its usual bucolic ambience, instead enjoying the lightest and most sensitive of touches.

The Quartet played the German Dance (Alla danza tedesca) with the same swiftness of movement and lightness of touch, the violin’s central running figurations briefly evoking the fairground before returning to the lyrical atmosphere of the first part – everything easeful and without a trace of heaviness. As for the exquisite Cavatina, its “hymn to life” aspect in the composer’s gallery of human impulse touched our hearts, the syncopated melody appearing to float freely during the piece’s almost hallucinatory middle section, before returning to earth and anchoring our spirits safely once more.

As for the finale, the problem with the music  is obviously mine, as the group lavished as much care on its droll jog-trot rhythms as anywhere else in the whole work. In all, it was “old school” music-making of the highest order – and the players rewarded our extended appreciation of their efforts with a short transcription of a Tchaikovsky song, performed obviously to the manner born, for our delight.


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