BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Recital at Wigmore Hall – Barry Douglas & Borodin Quartet – Tchaikovsky & Shostakovich

The Seasons Op.37a – III: March: Song of the Lark; X: October: Autumn Song
String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.11 – II: Andante cantabile
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.57

Barry Douglas (piano)

Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian & Sergey Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 14 October, 2019
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, in a programme linked cleverly through the pivotal notes of G and D, spirited us through the ‘Russian Soul’ this damp chilly Monday lunchtime at Wigmore Hall – the one nostalgic and longing, poet of the miniature; the other intense and brooding, master of the epic. From the former, two gems from ‘The Seasons’ cycle (1875-76) comtemporary with, but very different from, Francesca da Rimini. The G-minor third, ‘March’: “The field shimmering with flowers, the stars swirling in the heavens, the song of the lark fills the blue abyss” (Apollon Maykov). And the D-minor tenth, ‘October’, Barry Douglas, in reflectively intimate form, floating phrases across some misty dreamscape, recalling less Aleksey Tolstoy’s “autumn’s yellow leaves flying in the wind” prefacing the score than Pushkin’s “reluctant leaves from naked boughs … living today gone tomorrow”.

Borodin QuartetPhotograph: Simon van Boxtel

In the silken hands of the Borodin Quartet, textures meshed, melodies and cadences inflected with the subtlest of delays and leanings, each perfectly honed pizzicato a measure of time present time passed, the folksong Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s early First Quartet – old Vanya and his glass of rum – was unfolded like a many-layered painting, a muted panorama of Russian voice and variation, memories and fragrances, plumbing near-unfathomable wellsprings of language and semantics. The intensity of the closing B-flat pages, Ruben Aharonian’s G-string tone richly woody, each note reaching for the stars, touched pain.

The Borodin Quartet, founded in 1945, have been through famous incarnations – its original first cellist was Rostropovich. The present line-up is distinguished, living up to the philosophy and concepts of sound and precision ensemble characteristic of the founder members. Like them, they play for their lives, they listen and interact closely, and their range of colour and dynamics is scaled on the high-octane side. A phrase, a harmony, without purpose is inconceivable. That was the case when I last heard the formation, ‘Cold War’ vintage London1986. Nothing’s changed.

Occasionally in Shostakovich’s Stalin Prize 1940 Piano Quintet one caught the odd glitch, a moment of compromised intonation in the more tortured string passages. So what – the price of risk-taking without a safety net. Each player’s identification with the work, knowing its unsurpassed place in the history of the ensemble – which played it eight times with Shostakovich between 1947 and 1964, and recorded it with Richter – came across unmistakeably. Just back from China, Douglas – no lily-livered chamber player: an electrifying Brahms Piano Quintet years ago with the Brodsky stays with me – has the temperature, structure and style of this music commandingly in his blood. Here was a massively-boned account, pianistically superb and vitally immediate, that got to the heart of the matter. From baroque to ground-bass, ruminant wastelands to savage scherzo to final shy au revoir, a remarkable tour-de-force of percussive attack, biting strings, black-and-white etching, glitter and gravel was laid before us, the cosmos of the whole bound by a strenuous symphonic underlay. One could not have asked for more brilliance, sensitivity or boldness of projection. Thrilling.

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