Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
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’ (1805-1806) [39:48]
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.