Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets
CD 1-3
Op.18 (1798-1800)
No.1 [31:52] No.2 [24:06] No.3 [26:15] No.4 [24:46] No.5 [32:21] No.6 [28:10]
CD 4-5
Op.59 (1806)
No.1 [40:09] No.2 [44:50] No.3 [33:10]
Op.74 ‘Harp’ (1809) [33:26]
CD 6
Op.95 ‘Quartett serioso’ (1810) [22:22]
Op.131 (1826) [38:01]
Op.133 (1826) [16:52]
CD 7
Op.127 (1824) [37:29]
Op.130 (1826) [42:17]
CD 8
Op.132 (1825) [46:32]
Op.135 (1826) [26:41]
Borodin Quartet (Ruben Aharonian (violin), Andre Abramenkov (violin), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello))
rec. Small Hall, and Great Hall, Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, 2003-2006.
CHANDOS CHAN 10553(8) [8 CDs: 551:10]

This set of the Beethoven String Quartets has been reviewed on its original release elsewhere on this site (see review of the set, plus those of Vol. 1 & Vol.5), and with Paul Shoemaker’s positive remarks I have been looking forward to diving into some excellent listening experiences.

My principal comparison has been with that of the Alexander Quartet in their first recording of the cycle on Arte Nova, not particularly for artistic reasons, but because I happen to have the box lying around and with this Chandos re-release the Borodin Quartet now comes closer to a similar price category, while still managing to stay tantalisingly more expensive in CD format. The differences between American and Russian music making did however make themselves clearer the further I delved into both sets. There are of course other options around. The Lindsay is another fine quartet whose recordings I have encountered and enjoyed - they wring plenty from the music in their first cycle, which is also available at budget price. The Alban Berg Quartett is also cheap on EMI and was highly regarded in its day.

To start with I have two gripes, one minor, one slightly bigger. My only major complaint with this re-release is the lack of any kind of booklet notes. All you get is a single sheet foldout with a couple of hundred words about the Borodin Quartet and nothing at all about the music. I imagined the ‘serious’ booklet must have been lost in transit somewhere but, referring to the Chandos website, found their pdf for the set to be indeed just that one measly paper. This doesn’t give a feeling of good value at any price, especially since the texts from the original releases could have been used without too much trouble. Yes, you can obtain as much information as you will need on the pieces from the internet, but who wants to be surfing the web when appreciating sounds of the early 1800s. The other minor point is a bit picky, but I was at first a bit surprised by the narrowness of the stereo soundstage in these recordings. In this there is little difference between the ones made in the Small Hall, though the more grand acoustic of the Great Hall offers an illusion of greater space while still sounding somewhat generalised. This is not to say these are anything other than entirely natural and fully dynamic sounding recordings - indeed, they are arguably more natural than some of the more closely spot-lit quartet images we’ve become used to, being more as one would hear them in the hall rather than sitting on the players laps or hovering over their heads - depending on where your friendly sound engineer has decided to place the microphones.

Without going into too much detail, I would say the difference in price between Arte Nova Alexander and Chandos Borodin fairly accurately represents the comparable qualities in performance. The Alexander Quartet is reliable and virtuosic, but the Borodin Quartet has a way of getting to the heart of the music without letting the playing stand in the way of the emotional core of the music. More or less randomly chosen, the Andante cantabile opening of the third movement of the String Quartet Op.18 No.5 is one of those supremely simple themes aimed at launching a set of playful variations. The Alexander Quartet invest more intensity in this theme, sustaining the separated violin notes but carrying them with more weight of vibrato than the Borodin Quartet, who in turn allow the music more forward momentum, and a greater sense of expectancy. The Russian quartet plays in general with a tighter vibrato, colouring notes rather than constantly gripping them with an intensity which isn’t always necessary or welcome. In this they remind me of the Busch Quartet, whose elderly mono recordings still ‘work’ very well to my ears. This does give the Borodin Quartet a more relaxed feel in general over the cycle as a whole, but for me this allows the real highlights and truly remarkable movements to have a character and presence all their own.

One of the criticisms previously levelled at the Borodin Quartet in this cycle is that they make a bit of a heavy meal of some sections of Beethoven’s middle quartets. The Molto Adagio of the String Quartet Op.59 No.2 for instance, which comes in at 14:07 compared to the Alexander Quartet’s almost equally sustained 12:45. I still find the Borodin Quartet’s sound easier to take here, even when the sense of movement can sometimes feel like moving in slow motion rather than in a space of heavenly timelessness. There are beautiful moments created in this movement by both quartets, but if you prefer your ‘Rasumovsky 2’ to sound like a genuine prayer - sometimes reflective and sometimes imploring, then it will be the Borodin’s recording which will keep you gripped. The downside to this for me comes in the following Allegretto, which does plod with a rather leaden tread, but you can’t have everything. While we’re on negatives, the cello entry 20 seconds into the ‘Harp’ quartet on the same CD is rather sour, the only blot on an otherwise fine performance.

Having said the Borodin Quartet has a more ‘relaxed’ feel doesn’t mean to say that they can’t pull out all the dramatic stops. The first movement of the String Quartet Op.95 ‘Quartett serioso’ is one of those pieces where dramatic impact and wildness lives side by side with some of Beethoven’s most lyrical moments, and the players dig really deep here, almost pushing too hard and nearly breaking up at near the end at around 4:22. They are a tad slower than some, but end up sounding less desperate and freer as a result. Valentin Berlinsky, the cellist and only remaining original member of the quartet has the opening of the second movement to himself, laying down a gorgeously understated line for the others to follow. The quiet counterpoint of this Allegretto ma non troppo shows this quartet at its best when refining the lines and harmonies down to a glass-smooth finish, laying bare Beethoven’s most intimate musical secrets as music, rather than as String Quartet.

The sense of space and of a pacing which allows the music to breathe inhabits the Borodin Quartet’s playing of the String Quartet Op.131 and other of the late quartets, coming across as sunnier and more playful than some performances I’ve heard: those which seem determined to express Beethoven’s argumentative frown in music no matter what. For those who insist on listening to the Grosse Fuge Op.133 this is about as good as you’ll find, the players here doing their best to make the piece as transparent as possible by dropping back whenever playing any accompanying material. A precious moment for me is the Adagio second movement of Op.127 and the Borodin Quartet does not disappoint, managing to sustain an atmosphere of enduring expressiveness without falling into sentimentality. Again, sensible pacing and a sense of air around the notes give the more action-packed movements a feel of enjoyment and light rather than the traversal of a musical assault course. The magical opening of the String Quartet Op.130 will always bring a tear to my eye when everything feels right, as it does here. The Borodins go for an uncomplicated statement, refusing to tease and pull the music around other than to pull back on the dynamic to create maximum affect with minimum effects, and again with a genuine feel of freshness and surprise when that sudden fistful of fast notes spring from nowhere. They have great fun with the short Presto which swings in grand style, and show their abilities in being able to spin a gorgeous melodic line in both the sprightly Alla danza tedesca and the moving Cavatina.

The enigmatic mysteries of the Op.132 and Op.135 quartets are set forth with unpretentious clarity in the final disc of this set. The measured and sparing use of vibrato while allowing the Heiliger Dankgesang movement to develop is very fine indeed: everything stops, and you won’t be able to make a move until the music itself releases you temporarily from its spell with that strangely inserted Andante. The atmosphere of this movement brings me back again to those ancient Busch Quartet recordings, which hold a similar power, if from a different era where portamento slides between notes was permitted and strangely enough also sounds ‘right’ when playing those recordings today, even though we would start throwing things around if players tried the same thing now. Back to 2005 and I love the tempting secretiveness of that opening Allegretto of Op.135, and the rhythms both here and in the following Vivace have an infectious quality, emphasising the luminosity which hides behind the notes, shining through with wilful glimpses. As with almost all of the performances in this set, the human scale is expressed and the spiritual realm is broached without the importation of all kinds of extra layering and imposition on the music.

To conclude, I’ve become a huge fan of this set of the Beethoven String Quartets, and am delighted to have it as a new reference for the future. No, it is not perfect in every regard, and the lack of a proper booklet will always rankle, but there is no ignoring the excellent playing throughout this box. If you have found Beethoven’s string quartets to be heavy going, especially the later ones, then I recommend you have a listen to these recordings. The Borodin Quartet’s interpretations probably won’t revolutionise your thinking on these pieces, but they may change your attitude insofar as you actually begin to enjoy hearing them, rather than feeling obliged to appreciate them or perpetuating a frustrating unresolved fascination with the things.  

Dominy Clements