Sunday 12 July 2015

The Legendary Borodin Quartet sign to Decca commencing a new Shostakovich cycle to commemorate their 70th Anniversary season

The Borodin Quartet was founded in 1945, ten years before it adopted the name Borodin Quartet. Its longest-serving member, Valentin Berlinsky, was there almost at the beginning, though he modestly declines the title of having been the original cellist, his one predecessor was a certain Mstislav Rostropovich.

The first settled formation comprised Rostislav Dubinsky and Vladimir Rabeij (violins), Rudolf Barshai (viola) and Valentin Berlinsky (cello), performing under the name Quartet of the Moscow Philharmonic. During the first decade there were several changes of personnel. Nina Barshai (wife of Rudolf) replaced Rabeij after two years, then made way for Jaroslav Alexandrov in 1952. In 1953 Rudolf Barshai left to pursue his career as a soloist and conductor, and his place was taken by Dmitri Shebalin. The formation of Dubinsky, Alexandrov, Shebalin and Berlinsky lasted for two decades.

Despite the restrictions placed on Soviet artists in the Cold War years, the quartet appeared outside the Soviet Union and even toured the USA. In the mid1970s, at a time when recordings were spreading the ensemble’s reputation still wider, a new formation was needed when Alexandrov left and Dubinsky emigrated to the West. Berlinsky, whose soul may be said to be invested in the Borodin Quartet, recruited two new violinists, Mikhail Kopelman (1st violin) and Andrei Abramenkov (2nd). The following two decades saw the quartet accepted internationally as one of the world’s most renowned ensembles, revered for its authority in Russian music and Shostakovich in particular.  New recordings were critically acclaimed on all continents, and the already taxing touring schedule intensified when the Soviet system ended in 1989 and the whole world clamoured to hear the Borodin Quartet in live performance.

In the 1990s the quartet again underwent membership changes. Viola-player Dmitri Shebalin retired to be replaced by Igor Naidin, while Ruben Aharonian became the new 1st violin when Mikhail Kopelman left. In 2007 Valentin Berlinsky handed over the role of cellist to Vladimir Balshin. In 2001 Sergei Lomovsky replaced Abramenkov as 2nd violinist. Thus the current line-up is Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola) and Vladimir Balshin (cello).

Throughout all these changes, the Borodin Quartet has retained its distinct identity with each newcomer hearing the existing members playing in a very recognisable style and automatically soaking up the tradition.

The first new release on their new signing for Decca  is the first volume of a cycle of Shostakovich quartets, No’s 1, 8 and 14 coupled with Two Pieces for String Quartet, Op.36a.

CD or download
478 8205
The Borodin Quartet bring a gentle wistfulness to the opening of the first movement Moderato of String Quartet No.1 in C major, Op.49, subtly allowing Shostakovich’s little rhythmic motif to appear. As the movement develops they bring a rather more forceful edge to their playing before allowing the music to return to a more wistful nature. When the rhythmic theme reappears it has a less hard edge with some fine moments before the wistful little coda.

The second Moderato opens with a curious viola theme soon underlined by a pizzicato cello. As the music broadens with its fine, typically Shostakovichian theme, this Quartet point up the more dramatic moments bringing an emotional intensity as the movement progresses, all the while keeping an unsettled undertone.

This quartet reveal a terrific lightness of touch as they hurtle forward in the Allegro molto full of Shostakovich’s skittish light-heartedness before the Allegro where they bring a brightness of tone, a contrast with the Allegro molto. The sudden dynamic turns are beautifully done before they rush headlong into the coda.

The Borodin Quartet brings some subtle ideas to the often restrained slower movements as well as great passion to the Allegros.

This quartet bring some quite deliberate phrasing to point up the Largo of String Quartet No.8 in C Minor, Op.110 with beautiful intonation as well as the most affecting phrasing of Shostakovich’s most personal thoughts. They often reveal a subtle pulse behind this quiet, withdrawn music giving such care and thought to every phrase. At times it is as though it is difficult for them to force out such deep feelings. There are some lovely sonorities before we are led into the Allegro molto. Here the Quartet lets out all of the pent up feeling with some terrific playing. Yet still there is a tug that brings a slight emotional reticence.

The Allegretto brings some particularly fine phrasing, such subtle rhythmic qualities where one can hear so much before a lovely transition into the Largo with firm bowing in the staccato phrases, yet always with a restraint. What a weight they bring to some passages, laden with unbearable emotion and how beautifully they allow in the glimpse of light towards the coda. So many details are revealed before we gently lead into the final Largo where the Borodins produce a degree of vibrato that really tugs on the emotions as the music rises in passion. There are some fine, hushed sonorities before the coda that brings not so much a sense of resignation as of a quiet hopelessness.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such an emotionally weightier performance as this.

Next the Borodin Quartet give us Shostakovich’s penultimate quartet, the String Quartet No.14 in F sharp major Op.142. Here again, in the Allegretto, the Borodins reveal some fine textural layers before rising to moments of intense passion, these players bringing a terrific precision. They provide some beautifully light bowing with some lovely subtleties and details.

This quartet bring an great intensity to the Adagio, a movement that surely looks back to the slow movements of the eighth quartet. They build this movement in a masterly fashion rising to a peak of passion before an exquisite coda and leading into the amazing Allegretto where these players bring such spectacularly fine playing as the music hurtles around. In the subsequent quieter passages they bring some very fine sonorities and much feeling as moments from the Adagio are heard.

This is a very fine performance indeed revealing aspects of this quartet that I had not appreciated before.  

Two Pieces for String Quartet, Op.36a were taken from his music for the animated film The Tale of the Priest and of His Workman Balda for chamber orchestra (1933–1934), Op.36. The Elegy is beautifully played with a depth and beauty that reveals just why Shostakovich thought it worth arranging this music. The Polka is a terrific arrangement with some fine pizzicato passages. It is immense fun and played here with great panache, Shostakovich’s tongue in cheek writing caught to perfection.

In some ways these are very individual, one might even say, idiosyncratic performances. However they dig deep into the composer’s creations making one hear these works afresh. My download revealed a slightly hollow sounding acoustic but the detail revealed is remarkable.

I look forward to hearing the next instalment of this cycle.

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