Borodin Quartet and Smetana Trio, Vancouver Playhouse, April 9 and 21, 2013

 Borodin Quartet

Borodin Quartet

There are few string quartets more legendary than the Borodin Quartet.  Formed in 1945 and always in close association with composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the ensemble quickly became a reference point for definitive performances of all Russian chamber works.  Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music is indelibly linked to this group too, as they daringly invited them here to perform all 11 then-written Shostakovich’s quartets, in 1967, in the middle of the Cold War.   This event celebrated the opening of the Queen Elizabeth (now Vancouver) Playhouse.   As Eric Wilson fondly remembers: ‘Vancouver audiences got a little surprise.  The composer had just completed his 12th quartet as the Borodins were leaving Russia, so they pulled it out in the final concert and gave us its world premiere!’   They have returned to Vancouver ever since, a span of 49 years.  Fortunately, these original performances are still preserved on CD (Chandos 10064) and document what some might regard as the ‘golden age’ of this ensemble.  Two other excellent complete cycles were recorded later, the first for Melodiya/EMI, the second for Virgin.

There are now a total of 13 players who have played in this quartet since its inception, but the one pivotal founding member is cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who led this ensemble for an amazing 62 years until his retirement in 2007.  The period after that date was likely a struggle; the ensemble seemingly had to come together from scratch.  In the current concert, playing Shostakovich Quartets 3 and 5, I certainly felt the spirit of rejuvenation.  While the ensemble’s sound is not as ‘big’ as it once was, and the virtuoso character of the playing is less obvious, the spirit of Shostakovich seemed to be back with a true freshness, much like the early days. There was true concentration in the playing, capturing the wit, defiance and introspective half-lights – and above all, the consummate beauty and feeling – that only the Borodins can reveal here.  The great Adagio of the 3rd Quartet was quite overwhelming, but the way all the variety in the 5th Quartet was integrated from beginning to end was equally so.  How much more fluency and tenderness there is now in the playing of first violin Ruben Aharonian, and how much more decisive is cellist Vladimir Balshin, who replaced Berlinsky.   A wonderful experience.

The second concert featured the Smetana Trio, a Czech ensemble which was founded even earlier (in 1934 by pianist Joseph Palenicek), but has had to wait until this very concert to perform here.  It was often named the Czech Trio in earlier days, but tended to be overshadowed by the Suk Trio, led by Joseph Suk, Jr., great grandson of Dvorak himself, a most distinguished group that left a legacy of performances of Czech composers probably comparable to what the Borodins achieved for the Russians.   The ‘new’ Smetana Trio is led by cellist, Jan Palenicek, son of the group’s founder, but the sound and style of the group, while still unmistakably Czech, is thoroughly 21st C. in feel.  On this showing, this is a pretty robust and hard-hitting group, with ample power and strong discipline.  They attack works methodically with precision and structural awareness.  Their recordings for Supraphon have received the highest praise.  Note that these were all made when Jana Vonoskova was the violinist, recently replaced by Jiri Vodiska.

 Smetana Trio

Smetana Trio

I am certainly grateful that they programmed the Piano Trio in D minor (1902) by Vitezslav Nowak, an accomplished composer just after Dvorak that still remains relatively unknown.   This fine work has post-romantic leanings, intense and sometimes melodramatic, and the Smetana Trio projected it strongly, missing perhaps only some of its flow.  I found roughly the same qualities in Dvorak’s great ‘Dumky’ Trio, articulated very well but overall ending up slightly cautious and over-deliberate.  Perhaps one deficiency was that the new violinist was not as probing and inward as he might be; also, pianist Jitka Cechova also tended to lack tone-colour and flexibility in her phrasing. Interestingly, the ‘old’ Smetana Trio recorded this identical coupling of works on Supraphon 111-1089 (vinyl) around 1970.    I am certain that it had more fire and commitment than what we saw here.  The closing Brahms Trio No. 2 was again given a precise, well-structured reading of considerable power but not great emotional reach. 

Given my high expectations, I must admit some disappointment.  Certainly the Smetana Trio gave us performances that were strong and thoroughly professional, but they were not very imaginative or emotionally probing.  All the works were given roughly the same type of intensity and accents, even though the works are quite different.   With the new violinist’s clean but hard tone, I frankly find the intensity a bit too much at times; there must be some room for charm, relaxation and caprice.  It is of course these latter qualities that make the classic Suk Trio performances so idiomatic and endearing.  On the other hand, much like the Borodin Quartet earlier, perhaps we are simply seeing this ensemble in the process of adapting to new personnel.

© Geoffrey Newman 2013


Borodin Quartet play Shostakovich

Smetana Trio play Novak