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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op.51 No.2 (c.1868-73) [29:22]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No.8 in C minor Op.110 (1960) [18:53]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F (1903) [26:55]
Borodin Quartet
rec. live, 7 August 1961, Salzburg Festival
ORFEO C893141B [75:17]

The Borodin Quartet made its Salzburg Festival debut on 7 August 1961 with this programme. It was this performance, and that at the Edinburgh Festival the same year that marked the group’s international emergence. Sensing a coup, the Salzburg press machine went into overdrive claiming that Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet would be heard in a world première. Obviously this was very much wide of the mark, but it may have drummed up some extra enthusiasm.

Programmed centrally this powerful reading preserves their earlier approach to the work which, when both violinists left, became progressively slower and, in a sense, more expressively tentative. Tonal breadth here is married to acute stylistic awareness and a sure rhythmic grip, so that each of the five sections registers with tremendous grip and immediacy. Each section is thus coloured and defined in a way that was later less graphic. It’s telling, not least in this respect, that this performance is a full three minutes faster than their Melodiya studio recording of 1978.

Their approach to the Brahms Quartet in A minor might have puzzled those in the audience who had not yet been versed in the Russian quartet’s striking quotient of melancholy in this work. It emerges as an altogether darker and more mordant edifice than is the case when played by Austro-German ensembles. Like their Teldec recording, but perhaps even more so, there is a powerful breadth of tone from all four voices. They don’t allow tempi to stagnate but vest passages in the slow movement with great intensity. Their sound is rich but not saturated and dynamics are well deployed not least in the finale. Unlike the Busch Quartet in 1947 – characteristically fast in fast movements, very slow in slow ones – there is less sense of extremity in the Borodin performance but no lack of commitment. Perhaps the least convincing of the trio of quartets is, maybe predictably, the Ravel. The wristiness of Franco-Belgian pre-war bowing is largely absent and there’s a lack of lightness and felicity judged by the highest standards. Details such as the heaviness of cellist Valentin Berlinsky’s vibrato in the third movement point to something of a stylistic impasse.

Notwithstanding this, and the raft of alternative performances that have survived – in the following year they were taped by the BBC in Edinburgh [BBCL 40632] playing the Shostakovich and Ravel adding Borodin No.2 – there is certainly a frisson about this extremely well recorded Salzburg performance. I certainly prefer this vintage‘s performance of Shostakovich.

Jonathan Woolf