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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet in E flat major, D87
Quartettsatz in C minor, D703
String Quartet in A minor, D804 ‘Rosamunde’

Borodin String Quartet
Recorded London 1991
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 561995 2 1


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These recordings, made a decade ago by EMI and now served up on the Virgin Classics label, offer a chance to own, at bargain price, some Schubert chamber works in performances by one of the leading quartets of the second half of the 20th century. The Borodin Quartet was formed in 1945, and although the membership changed over the years, it maintained its own particularly full blooded sound. The cellist Valentin Berlinsky, virtually a founder member, is still with the quartet and can act as guardian of the style; I say "virtually" because Rostropovich was the true founder member but only briefly. The style, particularly in classical repertory, may now seem a trifle old-fashioned in the light of the modern trend towards more authentic performance which involves a cleaner, less vibratoish approach.. This is irrelevant when it comes, for example, to playing the quartets of Shostakovich where the Borodin can be regarded as authoritatively idiomatic. In the classical field they are nearer to the Amadeus than to many more recently formed ensembles.

The qualities that make the Quartet’s Shostakovich great - emotional commitment backed by technical virtuosity - are here put to the service of three Schubert works. Two are mainstream repertory, the other the less well known early quartet in E flat, D 87. The latter was written in Schubert’s mid-teens, the same age at which Mendelssohn wrote his remarkable Octet. The Borodin’s performance is beautifully well oiled but it is an approach which, for me, doesn’t quite capture the sharp edged exuberant optimism of youth that is the hallmark of most renderings of the Mendelssohn work. However, it is there in the music waiting to be brought out, especially in the last movement. Perhaps the Borodin are maintaining a tradition that goes back to a time when it was mistakenly thought to be a more mature work and are playing it as such. I don’t know.

As for the Quartettsatz, the players bring out the combination of rhythmic drive, suspense and soaring lyricism in this remarkable movement as if the music were programmed into their bones, sinews and nerves. It probably is.

The performance of the A minor Quartet, however, may not be to everyone’s taste. The work is characterised by a kind of lyrical, dead-pan pathos, obvious in the Andante Rosamunde movement but also present in the first movement. The restrained beauty of the themes speaks for itself and does not need the players to ram it down your throat with mannered phrasing. I feel the Borodin does this to the detriment of the music but it is a personal matter and some people will find the approach suits them very well.

There is something of the Rolls Royce about the Borodin’s playing – big, smooth and beautifully engineered. This well serves the largest part of the Quartet’s repertory which is romantic and 20th century. It may sound a little indulgent in Schubert but the sincerity and commitment is without doubt and that is what matters. Whatever your taste, this is playing to be admired and indulged.

The recorded sound is good, combining a close-up intimacy with warm ambience.

John Leeman

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