Borodin Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Haydn, Wolf, Borodin

String Quartets, Op.33 – No.1 in B-minor; No.5 in G
Italian Serenade
String Quartet No.1 in A

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

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 5 May, 2018
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Borodin QuartetPhotograph: borodinquartet.comThe Borodin Quartet takes a lively view of Haydn’s Opus 33: rhythmically firm in rhythm and always forward-moving in tempo. This approach is well-suited to these works, known as Gli scherzo since each includes a Scherzo rather than the conventional Minuet. This is a useful identification although in Opus 33/1 my 1930 Eulenberg score merely identifies this movement as Scherzando Allegro and the oldest score I could find (Trautwein from the 1840s) does likewise. The Borodin members obey the “Scherzo, Allegro di molto” noted in the programme. This swiftness underlines Haydn’s interesting mismatch of the Trio which has a different rhythmic pattern but the players avoided an awkward transition by pausing before its entry. Buoyancy of pulse was a feature of the elegant Andante together with refinement, and there was a tendency for new melodies to be introduced with momentary relaxation, occasionally the case when rounding off melodic phrases. A feeling of gentle expressiveness incorporated within the firmly driven Allegro moderato typified the approach and these subtleties were also to be found in the dashing reading of the Finale.

In Opus 33/5 the same direct view was taken. The delightful throwaway phrase at the beginning typifies the work’s humorous nature and the Borodin musicians’ affectionate treatment of its unexpected late reappearance made the immediate change of mood in the succeeding Largo e cantabile all the more effective. The dance movement, entitled Scherzo, was swept through brightly and much sparkle was given to the Finale, successfully belying the sober Allegretto marking.

In Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade the Molto vivo marking was taken note off and the richness of melodic invention exploited – a polished and ideally optimistic rendering. What a pity that Wolf abandoned adding two further movements.

Less frequently programmed than the Second Quartet, Alexander Borodin’s No.1 initially suffered a strange setback because the composer felt that in the first movement there was a resemblance to a theme from the Finale of Beethoven’s Opus 130 Quartet. He delayed publication for five years and then re-titled it “Quartet on a theme by Beethoven”. This seems to have been taken seriously and one later commentator even suggested that movements one, two and four were based on Beethoven’s theme. All this is best ignored since, if not alerted to the story, it would be unlikely for the listener to pick out any thematic similarity. The music is full of enjoyable melodies but forget sonata form. Borodin invents one tuneful theme after another and tries to ensure expressive playing by helpful instructions for each. Not all of these are clear, for example: a tempo ma un poco meno mosso seems to indicate that the players are being asked to move forward less but also to be at the same tempo. Nevertheless there are useful directions and the occasional groups of three bars marked più vivo in the slow movement make an effective aside to the progress of the music. The Borodin members shaped everything firmly and with sensitive care for melodic line. A particularly impressive example of their understanding came in the Prestissimo Scherzo where the Trio is required to be Moderato and by taking it at exactly half the speed, the same pulse continued throughout both sections – a comfortable feeling of continuity – and the Russian folk-dance nature of the Finale is ideally suited to their rhythmic skills.

The delightful ‘Serenade’ from Borodin’s Petite Suite, a transcription from the piano original, was the welcome encore. It features lyrical viola solos set against pizzicato accompaniment and a soothing close to the evening.

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