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String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108 (1960) [12:15]
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) [21:50]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet, Op. 59 No. 1 in F ‘Rasumovsky’
Valentin Berlinsky Quartet (Bartek Niziol, Wang Xiaoming (violins),
David Greenlees (viola), Alexander Neustroev (cello))
rec. December 2010, Reformed Church, Seon, Switzerland
AVIE AV2253 [73:58]
The Borodin Quartet, led by their cellist Valentin Berlinsky
(1925-2008), had a close personal and artistic relationship
with Shostakovich from 1946, so it’s no surprise that their
readings of the composer’s quartets are seen as unique, even
authoritative. In this exalted context it seems either brave
or foolhardy that four Zurich-based musicians decided to name
their quartet in honour of the Borodins’ long-serving leader.
In doing so they sought and received the approval of Berlinsky’s
daughter Ludmila, a pianist who performs regularly with them.
And they’re a highly trained foursome, too; Bartek Niziol and
Wang Xiaoming are concertmasters with the Zurich Opera band,
while David Greenlees and Alexander Neustroev are principals
in the city’s Tonhalle Orchestra.
In this, their debut disc for Avie, the Valentin Berlinsky Quartet
have programmed an intriguing mix of Shostakovich and Beethoven,
apparently a pairing much favoured by Berlinsky himself. And
given the connection, it seems only natural to compare this
new recording with those of the Borodins; the Shostakovich on
Chandos Historical – originally recorded for Melodiya between
1966 and 1971 – their latest Beethoven cycle – also on Chandos
– released in 2009. Berlinsky was the only surviving member
of the original foursome by the time he retired in 2007, a defection,
ill-health and fall-outs taking their toll in the 1970s. But
despite this change of personnel the group still played with
a distinctive, earthy sound, something that Berlinsky worked
tirelessly to promote and preserve.
Listening to the Borodins in the Seventh Quartet I was struck
by how well Berlinsky balances the corporate discipline of his
players while still allowing them their own, highly individual
playing styles. From the outset the Berlinskys are more refined
– streamlined, even – springing rhythms with subtlety and flair.
They certainly have the better recording, warm, spacious and
naturally balanced. But in the second movement the Borodins
dig deeper, finding all the musical strands and bringing out
so many colours in the process. And while the Russians play
with astonishing bite and vigour in the Allegro – helped by
a typically upfront Soviet recording – the Berlinskys are no
less thrilling, Neustroev’s dark, resonant cello superbly caught.
Both groups are splendid in the Allegretto, dance-like rhythms
beautifully managed, but for sheer temperament and grit the
Borodins are hard to beat.
It was always going to be an invidious task comparing these
recordings, and while I admire the sheer elegance and velvet
sound of the Berlinskys the Borodins have a unique dynamism
and nervous energy here that’s utterly compelling. And that’s
true of the Eighth Quartet as well, although the Berlinskys
do bring a symphonic weight to the Largo, whose long, fine-spun
phrases are most beautifully structured. Make no mistake, this
is playing of the highest order, and deeply felt; indeed, this
is some of the most lyrical and intense chamber playing I’ve
heard in a long time, the recording equally distinguished.
As expected the Borodins’ Allegro molto is sharply characterised
– a tad unremitting too – but that suits this jangling, tightly
wound score. Still, their modern rivals do very well here, even
if they’re less elemental, and they catch the strangely persecuted
air that pervades the Allegretto, with all its symphonic echoes.
Listening right through to the end one hears so many moments
of hushed inwardness and sustained melancholy that comparison
with the Borodins seems utterly pointless. Indeed, on its own
terms the Berlinskys’ reading of this dark-hued piece is simply
breathtaking in its blend of mood and line. The warm, unclouded
acoustic of the Reformed Church in Seon seems ideally suited
to chamber works, Chris Hazell and Simon Eadon’s recording both
airy and true.
The Berlinskys do even better in the Beethoven, the opening
Allegro as sunny and songful as one could wish for. This is
sophisticated music-making, their poise and unanimity in the
witty exchanges of the Allegretto a joy to behold. As for the
Adagio, it’s meltingly played, with an unusually high goose-bump
count. Really, this is a performance of largesse and loveliness,
the animated Russian theme of the last movement imbued with
an energy and drive that’s sure to please. And despite their
welcome geniality, these players never resort to generalities.
It’s a pity the Berlinskys’ provenance demands they be heard
alongside the Borodins, for they’re a supremely assured and
stylish ensemble in their own right. True, in the Shostakovich
they simply can’t match their rivals for insight and that elusive
Russian ‘tang’, but their Beethoven is very satisfying indeed.
The first-class sonics and informative liner-notes complete
a quality package.
Fine Shostakovich, unmissable Beethoven. More, please.