The Borodin Quartet – rich in tradition, focused and austere in performance

Chamber Music NZ presents:
The Borodin Quartet – music by Haydn, Shostakovich, Wolf, Tchaikovsky

HAYDN – Quartet in B Minor Op.33 No.1
SHOSTAKOVICH – Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117
WOLF – Italian Serenade
TCHAIKOVSKY – String Quartet No.1 in D Major Op.11

The Borodin Quartet  –  Ruben Aharonian (leader) / Sergei Lomovsky (violin)
Igor Naidin (viola) / Vladimir Balshin (‘cello)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

I found myself wondering how many people in the hall on Thursday evening besides myself might have been similarly “initiated” into chamber music by the Borodin Quartet via a famous 1962 Decca LP recording of the music of Borodin (the well-known Second String Quartet) and Shostakovich (the Eighth Quartet). At that stage of the quartet’s colourful history, two of its “foundation members” from 1945 were still with the group, the leader, violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, and the ‘cellist Valentin Berlinsky (actually, the young Mstislav Rostropovich was nominally the first ‘cellist, but withdrew after only a few weeks, and was replaced by Berlinsky). It’s no wonder, then, that the name “Borodin Quartet” still has the power to evoke a resonant sense of history and profound artistic achievement.

That particular recording (which I heard at a friend’s house) tumbled me into a world I knew almost nothing about at that stage – but it was a searing initiation into a form of music I hadn’t previously given much thought to, apart from regarding the idea of “chamber music” as something for people of “advanced” years who didn’t like their music to be too noisy! – rather, to be well-mannered and contained. So, the Borodin Quartet’s playing of the Shostakovich work in particular on that recording  REALLY knocked me sideways, blowing out the chamber-like walls of my youthful preconceptions in the process…….

Forty years and more later, here I am, sitting in and sharing a space with the Borodin Quartet itself – NOT, of course those same individuals whose playing on Decca SXL 6036 brought a new world to view for me, but their successors – two of the present group have been there since 1996 – leader, Reuben Aharonian, and violist Igoir Naidin, while more recently (2007), Vladimir Balshin took over as ‘cellist from the incredibly long-serving Valentin Berlinsky, and lastly, Sergei Lomovsky became the second violinist in 2011.

Though obviously possessing its own unique sound, the present Quartet members consider they have retained something of the original group’s unique identity. While not attributed to any one quartet member, a statement from the group’s “official” website pretty well sums up the on-going philosophy of maintaining that tradition, and is worth quoting at length:

As each newcomer joins, he hears the existing members playing in a very recognisable style, so he is automatically soaking up the tradition. It’s not formal teaching, as if your colleagues are correcting you. A quartet is in a permanent state of studying from each other. It’s as natural a process as could exist, learning while performing with your elder colleagues.

If tonight’s concert was anything to go by, it seemed to my ears that the group had of recent times evolved a less self-consciously expressive, and more “contained” approach in general to their music-making than I remembered from even more recent recordings. I wondered whether this had been instigated by the leader, Reuben Aharonian, whose whole aspect besides his music-making had a kind of austerity about it, with minimal physical movement and a vaguely distant manner, bordering on the dispassionate in overall effect. Away from visual impressions (in effect, listening with my eyes closed), I felt as the evening’s music-making proceeded that the playing “warmed up”, with both second-half items generously and characterfully realised – but this could have been a process of  partly “getting used to” the discrepancy between the visual austerities and the latent generosity of the interpretations!

In appearance, the other quartet members presented a kind of droll “proximity ratio” to their leader’s self-containment, with second violinist, violist and ‘cellist in turn displaying increasing physical animation – but again, this all began to “run together” as the concert unfolded. The Quartet began the evening’s music-making with Josef Haydn’s Op.33 No.1, the String Quartet in B Minor, one of six similar works known collectively as the “Russian” Quartets because of their dedication to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia – all very appropriate, of course.

A delicately wistful dance at the outset gave rise to a counterbalanced Beethoven-like thrusting passage, and an injection of major-key warmth  to the proceedings, which involved a development section that “played with” the opening theme on different modes. Haydn kept us guessing as to what the music would do next, and the players’ largely “contained” aspect did the rest! Instead of a Minuet to follow, Haydn penned a scherzo-like movement, dynamic at the outset, and gentle and sinuous throughout the Trio – the contrasting moods here made a stunning impression through being tossed off so effortlessly.

The Andante was the scherzo’s antithesis, the first violin enunciating his arching-over melody with impeccable taste, and the accompaniments bringing out further the warm gentility of the phrases – here it was the second subject group which darkened the mood with a more trenchant quality, and some intense modulations towards the piece’s end. Finally, the concluding finale movement switched nonchalantly from major to minor, with the quartet members again quizzically producing the most characterful sounds and rhythms with marked sobriety – the music’s energy, drama and theatricality was at once visually internalised and musically brought to the fore – a remarkable display!

The original members of the Borodin Quartet were contemporaries of Dmitri Shostakovich, though the composer had already forged a bond with the older Beethoven Quartet in the 1930s and subsequently entrusted the premiere performances of thirteen of his quartets to this almost-as-long-serving ensemble (the Beethoven Quartet disbanded in 1987 after fifty-six years!). However, having recorded all of Shostakovich’s String Quartets twice, with various single remakes, the Borodin Quartet could be said to have established their own kind of tradition of interpretation of these works, one which (reputedly), in the case of at least one of the quartets, “diverted” the composer’s preference for his original dedicatees’ performance.

Here we were given the composer’s Ninth Quartet, one whose first completed version the composer reputedly destroyed in a fit of depression (Shostakovich later described the incident as “an attack of healthy self-criticism”), and taking three years to complete the new work, in May 1964. From the outset, a bleak, worrying chromatic figure wove its way around and about the jog-trot rhythms, with certain figures obsessively recurring as if being held tightly for purposes of security – there came a moment when the chromatic figures rose spectrally upwards and seemed to threaten the tightly-held equilibrium of the music’s progress, but the shadows drew back and allowed the work to proceed. Soon after, without warning, the sounds unfurled deeply-hued tones which stilled forward movement, the players by turns declaiming and whispering expressions of deeply-felt emotion and pensive stillness.

The Allegretto which followed was quickly turned into a quintessential Russian dance-like episode, occasionally pre-echoing the three-note “William Tell” rhythms which the composer was to return to in the Fifteenth Symphony, but intensifying the mood and recalling the bleak, worrying figures at the work’s beginning, here far more energetic and biting, like a nightmare come true. The violin attempted some gaiety with a cheerful dancing figure, but the mood was too “danse macabre” to be reassuring!

The players seemed to unfold these transformations of mood, both abrupt and osmotic, with the minimum of outward fuss and display, but with surely-defined intensifications and yielding nuances throughout. The composer’s seeming endless invention found direct and unfussy expression,, solitary moments rudely interrupted by free-for-all-like outbursts indicating both exterior and interior conflicts and tensions. As remarkable as any of the sequences was the finale’s “whirling dervish” world of vertiginous exhilaration, whose episodes drove grimly and resolutely towards a hard-won triumph of the human spirit.

We certainly needed an interval in which to regain some composure after such an onslaught, the  first item in the second half continuing thankfully to refresh our beleaguered spirits with its blandishments of a piquant nature – this was Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade”. Everywhere there was a kind of insouciance which countered seriousness, except, perhaps, as a pastime! I loved the music’s generosity of line and openness of texture, taking me out-of-doors and (paraphrasing the words of Sir Thomas Beecham) “liberating me from conscious thought”. The players’ very “straight” demeanour in fact here added by dint of contrast to the abandonment of the sounds to the open spaces that the music generated – and the ending was brought off by the deftest of touches!

After this was left the Tchaikovsky First String Quartet, with its famous “Andante Cantabile” movement that made Tchaikovsky’s name resound throughout the musical world of the time. Again the players made a virtue out of their controlled, beautifully-polished way of rendering the sounds, though by this time we were “listening through” appearances to the sounds the ensemble was making. Immediately we heard from the players that distinctive and haunting vibrancy of tone and timbre one associates with Russian music of this era, suggesting, perhaps that Tchaikovsky himself composed more idiomatically than his composer-contemporaries gave him credit for (as far as he himself was concerned his own “Russianness” in his art was never in doubt!).

The famous “Andante Cantabile” was here given a reading whose tones and resonances were so other-worldly and dream-like I was enchanted, to the point where, during the second subject’s haunting refrain I could hardly distinguish between sound and memory – so heart-easing, simple and yet so resonant. If the scherzo seemed like an intrusion after this, then that was the composer’s fault, not that of the players. There was a no-nonsense quality about the performance, strongly contrasting with what we had just heard, and the more telling for that – the “Trio” was rather more yielding, blending cantabile with staccato bowings most winsomely.

At once direct and quixotic, straightforward and quirky, the finale here set full-toned tutti sounds against more will-o-the-wisp passages, with, in places, as much spirit as substance at work, a gamut of sounds I really enjoyed for their faery-like character. There was no all-purpose fullness of tones except during a lovely cello solo – the rest was characterful in a different way, the music driven excitingly to its joyous conclusion. We prevailed with our applause and got a brief encore, a simple and touching rendition of a Tchaikovsky piece called “Morning Prayer” – all an embodiment of musical history, for our pleasure and wonderment…….






One thought on “The Borodin Quartet – rich in tradition, focused and austere in performance

  1. Celia Lampe says:

    Couldn’t be there, but thanks to your detailed review, as always poetically written, I felt I was. Marvellous!

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