Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Quartet No.1 in A Op.26 (1874) [36:04]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Concertino for string quartet (1920) [6:38]
Nikolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
String Quartet No.13 in A minor Op.86 (1949) [24:57]
Borodin Quartet
rec. 8-20 November 2009, Gnessin State Musical College, Moscow
ONYX 4051 [67:40]

The latest incarnation of the Borodin Quartet has returned to the composer whose name it bears for a traversal of the First Quartet, previously recorded for Melodiya, and has added two intriguing companions; the final quartet of Miaskovsky and Stravinsky’s brief 1920 Concertino. This last acts as a kind of bridge between the two weightier works, a clever solution.

Miaskovsky’s A minor quartet is a warmly nostalgic work, serenely indifferent to the torrent of opprobrium directed at the composer and his colleagues at the time of the notorious Moscow decrees. Its refulgent lyricism and its ‘fantastico’ scherzo (a favourite descriptive of the composer’s) offer a balanced, measured, harmonious approach. The material is both vital and sympathetic, and it rounds off his quartet cycle without either unnecessary panache or desperate recycling.

Now that the only complete cycle has been reissued on CD by Northern Flowers we can bask in the performances of the Taneyev Quartet (NF/PMA 9954 contains the 13th Quartet). They are a hard act to follow, and their comprehensive awareness of the range of stylistic devices through which the composer passed, offers them a significant advantage. Nevertheless their recordings date from the early to mid 1980s and there are plenty of opportunities for inquisitive groups to explore the composer’s legacy on disc.

The Borodin offers a more homogenous, mellow approach. Their upper voices are less piercing and indeed less crystalline, and they adopt a more languid, reflective and refulgent sound world. Given that individually and collectively the Taneyev players have faster vibratos as well, this give their take a greater sense of urgency and immediacy, factors reinforced by the recordings; Onyx’s engineers tend to focus on the mellow middle voices somewhat. The more cavernous Borodin sound contrasts with the more brittle Taneyev most obviously in the ‘galloping horsemen’ episode in the pizzicato-laced scherzo. The Taneyev accent more incisively, their sonorities remaining lighter and brighter, leaner and meaner. As a result, though there’s very little in it in respect of timings – the Borodin is actually slightly quicker – the sharper accenting of the Taneyev sounds very much more exciting. The all-purpose Borodin sound blends warmly and richly in the lovely slow movement but is somewhat too plush, really, if one prefers the leading voices of the Taneyev. And in the finale the more arresting performance is the Taneyev’s who offer steel whereas the Borodin prefer bronze, and where the inner voices are far more audible in the older performance.

I labour these points not to condemn the Borodin performance. It’s a perfectly measured, warmly textured and viably sensitive reading. The recording is just too cloying however and the reading to my tastes too all-purpose. It lacks vitality and edge, as if the players were not prepared to compromise corporate sonority. Still, I certainly enjoyed their take; it’s just that I admire the Taneyev more.

The ‘old’ Borodin made a memorable recording of the First Quartet of Borodin but the Melodiya acoustic was more of a cathedral sound than was at all ideal. Naturally their performances, studio and live, of the Second are the more famous, given the relative statures of these works, but they were dedicated exponents of the earlier, in some ways more experimental, though hardly as distinguished work. This time the recording is far more sympathetic than the earlier one, though it does share of course the Miaskovsky quality of too mellow a sound. The hymnal opening is finely judged and the ensuing fugal sections calibrated with skill and discernment. There is mellifluous warmth and well sprung rhythms, and the folk-influenced second movement is textured well – it slips into the fugato with considerable skill. Overall however, as with the companion work, one could wish for a lightening of tone, and for a greater aeration of textures.

Stravinsky’s Concertino occupies its tart neo-classical niche well, adducing some effective lyricism to its generally biting and dance-saturated dynamism.

Overall then this disc gets a cautious welcome. The programming is convincing, the performances somewhat generalized in places, and the recordings similarly.

Jonathan Woolf