> Shostakovich, Borodin, Ravel quartets Borodin BBCL40632 [CC]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110.
Alexander BORODIN (1833-87)
String Quartet No. 2 in D
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

String Quartet in F
Borodin String Quartet (Rostislav Dubinsky, Yaroslav Aleksandrov, violins; Dmitri Shebalin, viola; Valentin Berlinsky, cello).
Recorded live in Leith Town Hall as part of the Edinburgh Festival on August 29th (Borodin) and August 31st 1962 (Shostakovich/Ravel).
BBC Legends/IMG Artists BBCL4063-2 [ADD] [73’42]


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I must confess to a frisson of expectation when this disc dropped on the doormat. This is a wonderful programme of three masterworks of the string quartet medium (taken from two concerts just days apart), played by one of the truly great quartets of our time. I had great hopes.

The Shostakovich and Ravel came from a concert given on August 31st, 1962. The Borodin Quartet’s association with the music of Shostakovich is the stuff of legend (a complete cycle at the Barbican, albeit with an adjusted line up given the distance in years from these recordings, was simply stunning), and it will come as no surprise that the Eighth Quartet comes off best. There is high drama in the third movement, which contrasts with and emphasises the expressive and hushed fourth movement. But there are surprising technical slips, too, and the impression surfaces from time to time that the hubbub of the Edinburgh Festival may well have disturbed the quartet’s concentration. True, live performance brings with it various advantages, and the second movement, Allegro molto, is riveting; but the quartet nevertheless consistently fails to get beneath the skin of this enigmatic music.

The account of the Ravel continues the rather uneasy mix of moments of beauty and insight juxtaposed with slips of concentration and tuning (Dubinsky goes decidedly off the centre of the notes towards the end of the first movement, for example). Nevertheless, the ‘Assez vif’ attains a sense of mystery and in the third movement, around 3’20, the first moment of real hushed magic appears. Curious, then, that despite great tonal variety in the finale, the ending itself is careful, rather than bathed in a ‘throw-away radiance’. As in the Shostakovich, the recording does not help (listen to the muffled cello in the second movement). Try the Quartetto Italiano on EMI References (CDH5 74792-2, coupled with the Debussy and Milhaud’s Twelfth Quartet review) for a performance which gets closer to the heart of this piece.

Two days earlier, the Borodin Quartet gave a performance of Borodin’s ever-popular Second Quartet. As in the rest of the disc, the sound is harsh and grates (sometimes it is just plain uncomfortable). Strangely, it is almost as if this fits the interpretation, which is grittily determined and unwilling to relax. One feels this straight away, and it runs through the taut Scherzo. But it is the famous Notturno that suffers the most: despite moments of beauty, it simply refuses to settle down.

Even great quartets have off days, and it does rather seem that this disc represents two of them. Disappointing.

Colin Clarke


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