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Borodin Quartet 60th Anniversary
Alexander BORODIN (1833–1887)

String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (1885): (Allegro moderato [8:45]; Scherzo: Allegro [5:10]; Notturno: Andante [8:37]; Finale: Andante – Vivace [7:14]);
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)

Andante cantabile (from String Quartet No. 1 in D Major Op. 11)(1871) [7:22];
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)

Romance (1889) [6:13];
Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)

String Quartet No. 12 in C Minor, D703 "Quartettsatz" (1820) [9:37];
Anton WEBERN (1883–1945)

Langsamer Satz (1905) [11:08];
Alexander BORODIN (1833–1887)

Serenata alla Spagnola (1886) [2:18]
Borodin Quartet
rec. The Lutheran Church, Moscow, Russia, 2005
ONYX 4002 [66:28]

 

String Quartets tend to be long-lived. I haven’t done extensive research but one need only mention a few – Amadeus, Quartetto Italiano, Budapest, Juilliard, Galimir – as ample proof. The Borodin may be the most enduring of them all, celebrating sixty years in 2005. Of course personnel change but Valentin Berlinsky has remained a pillar of strength ever since the beginning and there have been relatively few alterations. Originally they were the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet; their present name did not arrive until 1955. Of course they have championed Borodin’s music and it is a fitting tribute to him – and to their anniversary – to begin and end this disc with works by him. Another composer who has played an important part for the Borodins is Shostakovich. Even though they were not to premiere his quartets, his music has been woven into the ensemble’s performance history.

The last time I heard them – in Stockholm a little more than four years ago – they ended the concert with Shostakovich’s last quartet (No. 15). Before they played it the audience were explicitly asked to remain in silence after the last chords hade died away. They played the music on the little stage at the Grünewald Hall, only lit by candle-light on the music stands, discreetly blowing them out before leaving the hall in complete darkness and the audience were holding their breath. When they finally returned, after what seemed like an eternity, it was as if the applause would never stop. The bleak music of Shostakovich’s last years always leaves a deep impression in its inevitability, far removed from the mood of Borodin’s D major quartet, so full of profuse melodies and rhythmic life. At the same time there are darker streaks in the fabric, notably the empty-sounding Andante opening of the Finale. There the viola and cello play in unison (bar 4-9) and they play what is, in effect, a 12-note row, albeit not fully developed and returning to the key-note D. This movement in particular is much more "modern" and daring than Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz (tr. 8), written by a 22-year-old composer, still firmly rooted in a romantic idiom, which he was soon to abandon to become a guru in the 12-note stakes.

Returning to Borodin’s D major quartet it is easy to feel the players’ deep sympathy for and understanding of music that they must have played literally hundreds of times. Despite this familiarity their execution has a freshness that makes one believe that they have only recently discovered it. It is not a virtuoso reading. They do not aim to break speed records; in the main they are relaxed and let the music speak. Rubén Aharonian’s warmly romantic violin spins the long melodic phrases of the opening Allegro moderato with elegance and exquisite phrasing. Borodin’s score is littered with dynamic markings, which they observe, and add a few more, that the composer probably regarded as unnecessary to write in since he trusted the musicality of the players.

The elegance of the playing is omnipresent, but there is also power in the Animato (from bar 86). Hearing this quartet again after some time one can only marvel at the inventiveness of the writing and the melodic inspiration. Take for example the Baubles, Bangles and Beads theme in the second movement, from Meno mosso (bar 29), with the cello part creating a nervous undercurrent, over which the violins weave the melody in parallel thirds, elegantly sweeping. The famous Notturno, the kernel of the composition, has the ethereal first violin soaring beautifully over the murmuring viola from bar 24.

The rest of the disc is something of a retrospect, dipping into favourite compositions, not exactly miniatures but not full-scale works either. Tchaikovsky’s celebrated Andante cantabile is from a string quartet that is well worth hearing complete – I still treasure an LP with the Amadeus Quartet, coupled with Verdi’s only surviving quartet. Even during the composer’s lifetime it was the slow movement that people wanted to hear. Tchaikovsky arranged it for string orchestra and it was so eagerly requested that he complained about this in his diary. It is played here softly, dreamily. The Romance, written by a 16-year-old Rachmaninov in harness with a scherzo, not played here, was central to his career as being among his earliest music performed in public. Though never published during his lifetime, these pieces have been performed not least by the Borodin Quartet who have played them since 1951. The Romance is sweetly melancholy.

Schubert’s Quartettsatz D703 is one of many unfinished compositions in his oeuvre, or rather the movement is finished and one of his masterpieces but the rest of the intended quartet was never to be, apart from 41 bars of an andante. What we have is one of the most dramatic of his quartets, worthy of a place next to the A minor and D minor of roughly four years later.

In the spring of 1905 Anton Webern spent a holiday in Lower Austria and this reputedly inspired him to write the Langsamer Satz. It must have been a beautiful stay – or was it the presence of his future wife that provided the real inspiration? There is a passage from ca. 7:30 with pizzicato accompaniments. The heartbeats from the cello have always made me think of deep love, deep passion. The last minute of the piece is so moving, like two lovers intimately whispering.

The encore is a little delicious tit-bit with the accompaniment inspired, no doubt, by the Spanish guitar.

One of the finest string quartet discs I have heard for some time with all the music played con amore.

Göran Forsling

 



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