Borodin Quartet

String Quartet No.1 in A
String Quartet No.1 in C, Op.49
String Quartet No.2 in F, Op.22

Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian & Andrei Abramenkov (violins); Igor Naidin (viola) & Valentin Berlinsky (cello)]

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 20 May, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was part of the Wigmore Hall’s celebration of the Borodin Quartet’s 60th-anniversary. Over the years the personnel has inevitably changed and so has the group’s sound. In its truly great days prior to the retirement in 1974 – through ill-health – of the second violinist Yaroslav Aleksandrov the quartet combined exceptional tonal and interpretative intensity with immaculate ensemble. Today it sounds like a very well maintained Rolls Royce and it is only when the one surviving member of the original line-up, cellist Valentin Berlinsky, is spotlighted that one hears the unique sound that the group used to produce. Nevertheless the Borodin remains one of the great quartets and here the musicians chose two rarely-heard works and one of the least well-known of the Shostakovich canon.

Neither the Borodin nor the Tchaikovsky works can be claimed as among their composers’ finest. The introduction to the Borodin is short and leads into a rather dull first subject that is apparently modelled on Beethoven, although the second subject has more rhythmic invention. Problems were underlined by the leader’s sour intonation in the introduction, leisurely tempos, foursquare phrasing and some unconvincing gear changes in the development, and the Andante con moto second movement hinted at a melody and then meandered its way via an uninspired fugato passage. Certainly the Borodin Quartet played this work with enormous conviction, concentration, and depth of tone; one could certainly admire the playing, although in the scherzo and finale there was, once more, problems with intonation and ensemble.

Shostakovich’s Quartet No.1 was written a year after the Fifth Symphony, yet it’s style is almost neo-classical, similar to Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony. The Borodin’s approach was superb: the sound was balanced and rich, ensemble and intonation were far better, and at the start of the Allegro molto the sound was gossamer-like. But in that movement the phrasing and rhythm needed a greater sense of fantasy, and in the first movement some of the textures were too smooth and thick and in the last movement the interplay of voices and the dance elements needed greater emphasis. In the first movement’s recapitulation and coda Valentin Berlinksy could be heard digging into the strings and singing with a true, but almost indefinable, haunted Russian melancholy, and this threw the more generalised expression of his compatriots into sharp relief.

Tchaikovsky’s chamber and instrumental music does not display the enormous genius of his ballets, concertos, operas or late symphonies. In the admittedly entertaining Second Quartet, the Borodin, again, chose generally steady tempos, elicited rich textures and communicated great belief and enthusiasm for the music, albeit in the first movement’s development the building up of tension was somewhat lost through fluctuations of tempo and intensity, and the dynamic range could have been greater. It is however a great tribute to the ensemble’s powers of concentration and persuasion that the musicians held the slow movement together, one heavily reliant on its first theme which hints at Lensky’s aria in “Eugene Onegin”; but this theme and its subsequent modulations are not memorable enough to sustain its length; the Borodin Quartet supplied great playing and held the attention. More speed and attack in the finale would have been welcome. A little Stravinsky as an encore offered a welcome cleansing of the palate.

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