City of London Festival – Borodin String Quartet

String Quartet in B minor, Op.33/1
String Quartet No.2 in D
String Quartet No.8 in E minor, Op.59/2 (Razumovsky)

Borodin String Quartet [Ruben Aharonian & Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola) & Vladimir Balshin (cello)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 6 July, 2009
Venue: Drapers' Hall, London EC2

Haydn wrote his ground-breaking set of string quartets that were published as Opus 33 for Russia’s Grand Duke Paul II, presenting them at his Viennese residence. The first is a more serious affair than the likes of the comparatively jocular ‘Bird’ and ‘Joke’ quartets, due mainly to its key, but the Borodins combined to make it yet more straight-faced.

Dispensing with the repeats in the Minuet gave the work a top-heavy feel, a weighty first movement adding to the effect. In addition Ruben Aharonian was quite aggressive in his leading-off the finale, but by allowing a smile to creep through in the Andante, the close knit ensemble offered a hint of what might have been.

There were no such problems in the glorious Second Quartet of Borodin, a flagship work for this ensemble. Both Aharonian and Vladimir Balshin caught the Slavic flavour of Borodin’s attractive melodic writing, while an appropriately glassy texture suited the ethereal passages recurring in the finale. An effervescent scherzo contrasted nicely with the famous ‘Notturno’, which was restrained rather than heart-on-sleeve, with tasteful ornamentation and slight use of portamento being part of Aharonian’s authentic approach to the theme.

There followed a powerful performance of the second of Beethoven’s Opus 59 quartets. Dedicated to Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna at the time, these works illustrate the composer pushing the boundaries of what was possible with the medium of the string quartet. The Borodin largely found that pioneering spirit, though its members played well within their inhibitions at the potentially wilder moments of the scherzo. The tone in the slow movement was slightly sinewy at first but settled down to a carefully crafted interpretation. The outer movements had a sense of drama, the first dominated by the two hefty opening chords and their subsequent reappearances, while the finale was a strongly resolute march that drove through to the end with increasing surety.

As an encore the Borodin Quartet offered a Beethoven scherzo – from his first published string quartet (Opus 18/Number 1). It was played with zest and flair, if again a little short on humour.

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