String Quartets, Op.33 – No.1 in B minor; No.2 in E flat (The Joke); No.3 in C (The Bird); No.4 in B flat; No.5 in G (How do you do?); No.6 in D
Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian & Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola) & Vladimir Balshin (cello)]
Recorded 26, 28 & 30 June and 5 & 7 July 2010 in Concert Hall of the Gnessin State Musical College, Moscow
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: February 2011
CD No: ONYX 4069 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 44 minutes
The approach of the Borodin Quartet to this music is very consistent. Tempos are often a great deal faster than the average; and, throughout, rhythms are buoyant and dance-like. This technique is applied also to the slow movements and the dance origins of the Andante movements make this approach very suitable. It is also applied to movements marked Largo or Adagio.
The very beginning of the first of these works gives ample opportunity for the musicians to stress the many accents – the music fairly bounces along. In fact the B minor piece is eminently suited to these players’ style and the lively reading of the Andante is a delight: there is perfect timing when the start of a new melodic thread is placed after a moment’s expressive relaxation.
As a particular feature of Opus 33, it was thought extraordinary that Haydn should have chosen to give the title Scherzo to movements normally described as Minuet. Haydn’s revolutionary idea is underlined by the Allegro tempo marking for three such movements and they suit the Borodin Quartet admirably – the movements are made to sound swift, joyous and vivid. The remaining scherzos are given the marking Allegretto and here I am less convinced. The players’ tempos are also Allegro. Of course, the title of ‘scherzo’ suggests an element of light-heartedness, but I referred to the iconic version of Opus 33 by the Schneider Quartet and in these three Allegretto scherzos the Borodin musicians are faster by some forty percent. In ‘The Bird’, it’s true that the Schneider Quartet takes a daringly slow view of this Allegretto but it means that an amazing sense of mystery is captured – this must surely be the most ‘serious’ scherzo ever written and the Schneider members give it a revelatory performance of it. The Borodin Quartet is merely swift, cheerful and perhaps even superficial.
This upbeat approach is consistent and is appropriate for most of the music: the dashing set of variations that ends the G major work has rarely sounded so joyful. The decision to take a rapid view of the term Allegretto in the scherzo of the D major piece is not too damaging and seems to underline the implied optimism of the music. The preceding Andante is beautifully phrased its finale variations also bound along with great good humour. Of all the slow movements, only that of the B flat quartet suffers from a sense of undue pressure; elsewhere lyrical music is sensitively expounded and is convincingly flowing.
These are not strictly classical readings; typically there are many examples of shadings at ends of phrases. Additionally there is a habit of ‘taking a breath’ before the entry into a trio section. From others this can sound clumsy but the Borodin musicians have the ability to make this little emphasis seem no more than a passing underlining of a transition from one melody to another. This is never a favourite device of mine but here it does no great harm.
The recording is gorgeously spacious – absolute clarity backed by rich resonance makes for the best of both worlds. In Haydn’s day these works may perhaps have been performed in more intimate surroundings but I find that the personnel of a string quartet surrounded by concert-hall ambience makes for a pleasing musical experience and here it enhances the beautiful sound made by a very notable ensemble, the Borodin Quartet.