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
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.