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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 1 op. 49 [14:27]
String Quartet No. 8 op. 110 [24:25]
String Quartet No. 14 op. 142 [29:54]
Two Pieces for String Quartet op. 36a [7:12]
Borodin Quartet (Ruben Aharonian (first violin); Sergei Lomovsky (second violin); Igor Naidin (viola); Vladimir Balshin (cello))
rec. 2015, Concert Hall of the Victor Popov Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow.
DECCA 478 8205 [75:53]

The original Borodin Quartet was formed seventy years ago in 1945, initially calling itself the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet The group changed its name to the Borodin Quartet ten years later and is one of the few existing chamber groups with such continuity and longevity. This new disc of the music with which they are most closely associated is issued to mark that seventieth anniversary. It launches a new cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets to succeed the version of numbers 1 to 13 by the original members (reissued on Chandos), and its successor of all 15 (Melodiya). This third Borodin cycle will contain some other pieces, including the Piano Quintet.

There have been successive changes in the group’s personnel, but overlaps have enabled the legacy to be passed on. Of the current members of the Quartet Ruben Aharonian and Igor Naidin joined in 1996, Vladimir Balshin in 2007, and Sergei Lomovsky in 2011. None of them feature in those near-legendary two recordings of the Shostakovich quartet cycle, which had in common the viola player Dmitri Shebalin and the cellist Valentin Berlinsky — who was the teacher of the current cellist. “As each newcomer joins”, the Quartet’s website states, “he hears the existing members playing in a very recognisable style, so he is automatically soaking up the tradition. It’s not formal teaching, as if your colleagues are correcting you. A quartet is in a permanent state of studying from each other. It’s as natural a process as could exist, learning while performing with your elder colleagues.”

The rich string sound and solid technique evident in the opening movement of quartet No.1 is indeed reminiscent of earlier incarnations of this group. So too is the feeling for the idiom, and as the genial and seemingly simple C major music develops more ambiguity, the Borodins are alert to the nuanced playing required to cast shadows upon the serene surface. There is though little truly quiet playing in this work, and not that much more elsewhere, which might be an effect of the recording, which though slightly close, is generally very fine.

The 8th quartet also receives a good performance with plenty of drama and fine playing. However some doubts did creep in about the intensity level, which is normally so high with the Borodin Quartet in this repertoire, and I wondered if this in part down to a slightly broader tempo than usual. So I looked up the timings of the movements of this 8th quartet in the two earlier cycles and compared them to this one.

1st cycle
2nd cycle
3rd cycle
Movement 1
Movement 2
Movement 3
Movement 4
Movement 5

This evident slowing down seems to lower the emotional temperature somewhat. Certainly the interpretation is less fraught with terror and freighted with oppression than in the earlier versions. This might not be all loss, as even Russian musicians can now treat the work as a string quartet and not a harrowing chapter of autobiography. There after all would be no artistic point in a straight remake in modern sound of those earlier versions.

The 14th quartet receives the best performance on this disc. There is a similar broadening of tempo in all three movements compared to the second Borodin cycle (29:54 versus 28:15) but this does not rob the music of the sense of growth needed to sustain the three longish movements. The central Adagio is especially poignant here, searching and affecting, though not so redolent of the sick room of a death-haunted artist as with their predecessors. Perhaps these later quartets in the cycle are now granted a more universal significance, as the political and personal conditions in which they were written recede in time. That would only be appropriate for the first post-Soviet Shostakovich cycle from the Borodin Quartet, of which this makes an auspicious start. So don’t discard your earlier Borodin cycles, but do look forward to a more developed contemporary approach unfolding from their successors as this cycle progresses.

Roy Westbrook


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