Borodin Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Shostakovich 9 & Beethoven’s First Razumovsky

String Quartet No.9 in E flat, Op.117
String Quartet in F, Op.59/1 (Razumovsky)

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

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 4 November, 2016
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Borodin QuartetPhotograph: Keith SaundersOn the evidence of this concert the septuagenarian Borodin Quartet retains few of the attributes of the legendary ensemble which, in the days of LP, recorded the first not-quite-complete cycle of Shostakovich’s String Quartets. Rostislav Dubinsky’s indubitably authentic autobiography might not have achieved the prominence of the fabricated effort credited to the composer himself, but the Shostakovich performances he led seem universally accepted as a benchmark. Rather than retaining that elusive ring of truth, detailed responsiveness was sacrificed just a little by subsequent line-ups, pursuing what could be read, at least initially, as state-sanctioned perfection.

The would-be finely matched timbres of the current ensemble would appear to suggest that no-one has felt the need for a comprehensive reassessment. Indeed, an air of complacency hung over this latest instalment of the Borodin’s ongoing Beethoven and Shostakovich series at Wigmore Hall. The intention was clear. We were meant to be experiencing big-boned, old school playing of the kind reluctant to prioritise expressive declamation over proper tuning. The results however were less compelling and, at times, technically fallible.

The Shostakovich was programmed first and the coughers were not to be stilled. One could not but recall previous Borodin traversals of its Finale, the Dubinsky-led team almost hysterically intense, the Mikhail Kopelman-led alternative resolute, even positive at a more deliberate tempo. Here one felt we were coasting along in neutral, at least until the end was in sight. Granted we were spared the scratchy monotonal rant perpetrated by some younger rival groups yet the music’s life force was absent too. Or was this air of detachment the effect produced by the players’ physical passivity? The third movement was destabilised by a missed entry and the playing of Ruben Aharonian – nearly as old as the institution he now leads – was often distinctly below par, more convincing in lyrical passages than those requiring incisive rhythmic definition.

Contrary to expectations, the Beethoven was better, albeit more relaxed than we are used to today from the likes of the Belcea Quartet, balance and continuity prized over incident. The Scherzo again teetered on the brink uncomfortably but the proto-Schubertian slow movement was rather wonderful with Aharonian finding his best form and sterling contributions from his colleagues. The Finale kept up this standard, its pacing not quite predictable, the sound still rounder and warmer than the norm. This was the fabled ensemble we had come to hear.

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