‘MUSIC AS INTIMATE CONVERSATION’: THE ZENITH OF THE BORODIN QUARTET
Borodin Quartet: Music of Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Playhouse, October 17, 2017.
This was a very special concert, the finest string quartet playing I have heard in a long time. One seldom talks about ‘intimate conversation’ in quartet playing anymore, except possibly when referring to the legendary Busch and Vegh Quartets, or to the Quatuor Mosaiques and Lindsay Quartet in their heyday. With these exalted performers, time seemed to stand still as refined, yet expressive, voices spoke to each other with greatest inner concentration and suspension. For all the greatness of its legacy, I had never really thought of the Borodin Quartet in these terms. Under Rostislav Dubinsky in the 1960s, there was a biting sharpness wedded to elegance and strong emotional readiness; under Mikhail Kopelman in the 1980s, there was comparable depth and perhaps even more virtuosity. This current (and third) Borodin Quartet comes with a difference: in their complete cycle of the Shostakovich quartets performed here in May 2015 (review and interview), what stood out was their unaffected purity of expression, architectural command and, notably, greater warmth. But that was only five years after the last player, violinist Sergei Lomovsky, joined the ensemble. Now, two years later, an even more uniquely-compelling range of expression and intimacy emerges. Since the ensemble played Shostakovich’s 6th and 13th quartet again, there was a clear basis for comparison.
The first item is the sound, which now strikes me as somewhat bigger and more beautifully burnished. The bottom end has always had a wonderful tonal luster in the hands of violist Igor Naidin and cellist Vladimir Balshin (Valentin Berlinsky’s replacement of a decade ago), but Balshin now anchors the sound with greater authority – and what an accomplished cellist he is. But the violin line (in the hands of Ruben Aharonian and Lomovsky) is stronger and cleaner too. It would be difficult to find a more beautiful sound to listen to: impeccable in intonation, rich and fully integrated, with wonderfully refined shape to the lines and a special communication in the voicings. The refinement possibly takes me back to the Quartetto Italiano, and the size of the sound is as big as any extant quartet. But there is also a subtle sensuality in the playing, which I regard as a unique addition.
The pairing of the relatively unencumbered 6th quartet with the pained 13th may be thought a study in contrast, but the same wonderful sense of unforced concentration and personal involvement seemed to permeate both. For all the dark visceral edge one might find in a good number of the composer’s quartets (and there are certainly moments in the 13th), the feeling that emerged from these performances is that Shostakovich’s music is less about sharply dramatic emotional responses and more about the subtle and inexorable unfolding of states of mind (some, of course, very dark and disturbing). It was the engulfing sense of conversational flow, plus the remarkable cultivation of the playing, which distinguished these readings from the more acerbic and pointed efforts of the previous Borodins and from even this group two years ago.
The more conventional 6th quartet had a lovely structure and shape, moving forward with the greatest fluency and eloquence. Yet who might find the delicious sense of whimsy in the lines of the opening movement or the strokes of Debussy-like colour and fantasy later on? The articulation was not only enticingly suspended but full of delicacy, not least in the gossamer projection of parts of the finale. The composer digs into pain and isolation in the 13th quartet, and the sense of patience in the playing and the transparency of the conversation transferred even more convincingly to this sparse, disembodied world: both strong and subtle imagery just seemed to unfold as a compendium of subtly-gradated states of mind. As the work is played as one a continuous Adagio, the bleakness was registered in many different forms, each time revealing something new. The haunting three-note figures and the taps on wood emerged almost as if in silence. Even the moments of unanimous attack did not draw attention to themselves: the gravity of the feeling was registered, but the fixation remained on the music’s ongoing development. The underlying meaning of each motive was perfectly distilled as the musical fragments passed between the players; the soliloquies for viola and cello went right to the soul. So grippingly personal – you could hear a pin drop at the end.
The evening naturally started with lighter fare: a beautifully-proportioned Schubert Quartettsatz and an ensemble specialty, Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, Op. 39. The latter is a transcription of 24 short pieces for piano as set for string quartet by Rostislav Dubinsky. I found these slight pieces charming in their capricious innocence, and some found a touching melancholy: one actually seemed to borrow from the variations in Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. The Borodin’s playing could not have been more idiomatic.
This was an absolutely wonderful concert. The encore, Tchaikovsky’s famous ‘Andante Cantabile’ was dedicated to Eric Wilson, artistic director of Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music (interview), who has served for almost 60 years. He first invited the Borodin Quartet to play the complete Shostakovich quartets in Vancouver in 1969, when only 11 quartets had been written. As Mr. Wilson fondly remembers: ‘Vancouver audiences got a little surprise: Shostakovich had just completed his 12th quartet as the Borodins were leaving Russia, so they pulled it out in the final concert and gave its world premiere!
I have been informed that the Borodin Quartet will release the remaining discs in its new cycle of the Shostakovich quartets for Decca in the summer of 2018.
© Geoffrey Newman 2017