Borodin Quartet: The Complete Shostakovich String Quartets, Vancouver Playhouse, May 5-13, 2015

The association between Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music and the Borodin Quartet goes back a half-century.  Their first appearance here was 1964.  In 1969, in the middle of the Cold War, the organization invited the ensemble to play all 11 then-written quartets for the first time in North America. At the last concert, the Borodins had a little surprise in store, giving the North American premiere of Quartet No. 12, playing from the composer’s unpublished manuscript.  On the occasion of the Borodin Quartet’s 70th anniversary tour this year, and the 50th anniversary of its association with the organization, it was suggested that the complete cycle of (now) 15 quartets be performed again, coincident with the release of their new integral recordings for Decca. There are few quartets that have maintained their existence for 50 years; preserving a legacy for almost 70 is simply remarkable.  The driving factor in this longevity was the presence of cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who was an original quartet member for a phenomenal 62 years, only retiring in 2007.  The authenticity of the Borodin’s Shostakovich of course derives from the fact that they had such a close tie to the composer himself, originally having played many of the quartets under his supervision and guidance.

The current incarnation of the quartet is in some sense relatively new.  First violin Ruben Aharonian and violist Igor Naidin joined in 1996, while cellist Vladimir Balshin took over for Berlinsky in 2007 and second violin Sergei Lomovsky came later in 2011. The latter both emigrated from Yuri Bashmet’s Moscow Soloists.  Nonetheless, one would be hard pressed to believe that they all hadn’t been together for many decades, since their coordination and voicings are quite superb.  The two violinists have both strength and purity in their playing, but it is the viola and cello that give great warmth to the overall tonal fabric, with notable eloquence and feeling too.  It is perhaps the warmth and thoughtfulness of the current group that makes their interpretations seem smoother and more refined than their predecessors.  They are notably less severe than those of the original ensemble under violinist Rostislav Dubinsky (1945-1976) and possibly less aggressive than the ensemble under Mikhail Kopelman (1976-1996), both of which left the familiar landmark recordings of the cycle.

I found this to be a rare experience: witnessing an ensemble so devoted to the music of their compatriot, and so evidently selfless, sensitive and sure in their presentation of it.  Unlike many recent ensembles, there was little attempt at virtuosity for its own sake, yet each quartet emerged as a wonderfully strong and balanced jewel, and spoke its message directly and profoundly.   Performing the 15 quartets sequentially (3 on each night) was revealing, allowing one to consistently catalogue the expressive and structural features that Shostakovich came back to again and again as his art developed. These include all the wry little three-note rhythmic figures that bridge transitions and create space on their own, the composer’s ability to often probe raw,  almost primeval nerve ends, and his role for solo voicings (especially in the viola and cello) as soliloquies.  Of course, one also recognizes the recurring links to the composer’s symphonic Adagios, his allusions to Eastern music, as well as the immense structural debts to both Beethoven and Mahler, and even Bach.  From beginning to end, I felt that there was hardly ever a letdown in concentration; in fact, each quartet seemed to build on its predecessors, creating a great feeling of unity.

The strongest of the earliest (but not youthful) quartets, No. 2 through No. 4, came off splendidly.  All exhibited a purposive motion, were absolutely crystalline in detail, and each seemed shorter and more integrated to me.  Occasionally, the warmth of some of the playing perhaps suggested earlier Slavic romantic quartets, and I learned from this reference. The performance of the 2nd had considerable variety in expression, starting from quite sharp feelings of angst but then moving to a remarkably deep response in the slow movement -- set over the ‘ground bass’. This was followed by a tantalizing gossamer-like ‘waltz’, and ended with a true sense of narrative in the closing fugue.  Textures were beautifully shaped and controlled, and small moment to moment changes in the emotional fabric readily surfaced.   

One could see some earlier ‘romantic’ roots in the opening of the 3rd quartet too and I liked the way the ensemble got the later march rhythms to achieve inexorability without ever seeming forced.  The great Finale achieved the much the same depth of expression as the slow movement of its predecessor, where time often stood still, the forlorn yearning moving inescapably on, so touching and beautiful.  The sheer patience of this playing – yet so alive with meaning -- was remarkable.  The rendering of popular 4th quartet was lovely too, so sensitive in the way it assimilated the oriental and folk influences to create a deep and intimate melancholy in the Andantino and also a quiet longing in the closing Allegretto.  There was always eloquence in the expression of the four players, sensitive and feeling but never overstated, not least in cellist Vladimir Balshin who has real character in his playing and stands as a most able replacement for Berlinsky.

While the more experimental 5th and the carefree 6th quartets perhaps left slightly less of an imprint (though reminding us that Shostakovich had already composed his 10th symphony by this point), the traversal of No. 7-9 was again very successful.  I have seldom heard such a beautifully sculpted and distilled presentation of the 7th.  This truly came together as a jeweled whole -- not one note too many, not one note too few.  The 8th is of course the quartet that first broke through to the West, and figured in the Borodin’s first recording for a western company (Decca) in 1962.  There have been a number of more powerful performances than this, but the Borodin’s sense of balance made it come out fully fresh.  Were the famous unison pizzicatos too light or the heartfelt motive later on too reserved in feeling?  Not in the slightest, but it seemed that the ensemble always aimed to expose the compelling symmetry in the piece, never needing to highlight extra drama.   Similarly, a lot of young quartets these days are attracted to the 9th quartet, and I always think what an effort they expend to get through it, especially the extended fugue of the Finale. Perhaps they try for too much; it would be rare to hear a treatment as fluent and natural as we witnessed here.  There was a sense of wonder and great structural cunning, but it was all scaled and shaded so impeccably and flowed so easily.  The ensemble never used any more sinew or push than they needed.   Of course, the achievement of a convincing organic unity must be established in all three of these quartets, as each is played continuously.

One could not help feeling that Shostakovich’s structural and emotional resources were expanding as we proceeded to Quartets No. 10-12.  The emotional utterance becomes more direct, raw and in touch with more vital forces of the ‘earth’.  I have always loved the opening movement of the 10th quartet, searching so uneasily for a tonal center and then finally finding such affirming warm radiance.  I thought this interpretation was admirable, and the ensemble also spared nothing in moving into the following Allegro furioso as a coiled animal might.  The expressive eloquence of the cello sent off the great Adagio, followed later by a similar contribution by the first violin, all beautifully poised.  The Finale moved patiently through its sometimes gnarly fabric, and achieved exactly the right feeling of integration when the first movement’s theme returned. 

The ensemble caught the ‘strangeness’ of the great 7-movement 11th quartet (the introduction to the composer’s final dark period), capturing a lyrical flow within all its ‘chants’, then hinting at a primeval feeling in the slicing rhythms of the Scherzo and the poignant Recitative.  Of course, there is so much at the end of this piece – all the solo statements, the motion of a funeral march, and the icy allusions to world that only Beethoven would have understood.  Beautifully moving and haunting indeed! In these performances, the 12th quartet seemed like natural extension of its predecessor, though there are only two movements and some twelve-tone experiments are involved.  Some of the terseness in expression seemed to lean towards Bartok, while the solo soliloquies seemingly took us even further into the composer’s final state of mind, with hints of the dark fabric of the symphonic Adagios in the Elegy.

What was rewarding about the traversal of the final three quartets is that one could see so clearly how Shostakovich had increased the range of his expressive ‘symbols’ and could utilize these more and more fluently to convey his own intimate world: rhythmic taps by the bow on the instrument to augment the persistent three-note staccato figures, the solo soliloquies that become more and more sparse and Bach-like, the stark string crescendos (‘shrieks’) to the highest notes to augment regular sforzandi, the increased feelings of Mahlerian disembodiment, the almost anthem-like prayer, and the recourse to ancient and primeval templates to reveal the ‘pulse of the earth’.  Yet there was also a strange tenderness and humanity hovering over it all.  This was splendidly portrayed: the motion through these final quartets seemed inexorable yet, paradoxically, the expression seemed almost timeless.  

As instructed, the composer’s ‘requiem’, the 15th was played by candlelight, just as the 11th was in the 1969 visit.  The shadows, the jagged protestations, the allusions to a Mahlerian ‘other world’, and then for all the final despair and disorientation, a brief tremolo – and it is over.  The quartet blew out the candles, left the stage, the lights went back on and, yes, they returned for an encore: the opening movement of Quartet No. 1.  Life starts anew: I was ready to hear the whole cycle again!

I referred to this set of five concerts as a ‘journey of a lifetime’, and that is what it was.  The spirit of Shostakovich was everywhere, his defiance, his tenderness, his sardonic wit, all the little complexities that made up his expression.  Nowhere did the Borodin Quartet intervene in the presentation of the story.  This was scrupulously prepared, but absolutely selfless playing, almost from a different age.  There are many very fine performances of the Shostakovich quartets these days, but I think these interpretations must remain both special and unique. While comparatively austere, they were never underpowered in any sense, and had the overriding virtue of convincing me that virtually every one of the 15 works was a truly balanced masterpiece.  I happened to ask violist Igor Naiden why the ensemble was not tempted by a more brazen profile that we often see today.  He remarked simply: “Shostakovich always said that nothing in this music can ever be rude.”   

It is now 40 years since the composer’s death, and only one of the current members of the quartet actually met Shostakovich (just briefly).  It is quite remarkable to me that playing so convincingly true both to the composer’s world and to the spirit of a 70-year legacy could be preserved for our current illumination.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015