First-class Chamber Music from the Borodin Quartet and Kun Woo Paik

Haydn, Prokofiev, Brahms: Borodin Quartet, Kun Woo Paik (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 23.5.2014 (RB)

Haydn – String Quartet in B Minor Op 33 No. 1 (1781)
Prokofiev – String Quartet No. 2 in F Op 92 (1941)
Brahms – Piano Quintet in F Minor Op 34 (1865)


The Borodin Quartet was formed in 1945 and is particularly acclaimed for its interpretations of Shostakovich and Beethoven.  Haydn and Prokofiev have many similarities, both in terms of their inventiveness and use of wit and humour so I liked the idea of pairing quartets by these composers in the first half of the concert.  For the second half, the Borodin Quartet were joined by the distinguished Korean pianist, Kun Woo Paik for Brahms’ perennially popular Piano Quintet.

Haydn declared that his Op 33 Quartets were “written in a quite new and special way” and there has been much speculation around what he could have meant by that.  The most obvious changes to the previous set of Quartets is the replacement of minuets with scherzos and the use of more overtly melodic rather than fugal material in the finale – all designed to help with the process of modernising the String Quartet.  In the opening Allegro Moderato I was struck with the clarity of the textures and the immaculate balance maintained between the four string players.  The lines were clean and well shaped with very little rubato and everything was very tightly controlled.  The opening of the scherzo had an understated rumbustious quality and the contrapuntal exchanges were exceptionally clear.  The slow movement was a model of classical decorum with the players tapering the phrases beautifully and showing close attention to detail.  In the finale Haydn reprises his ‘Sturm und Drang’ style of the 1760s and the Borodin Quartet injected restless energy into the opening although I wondered if the leader, Ruben Aharonian, could have loosened up a little to make more of the wit and comic interludes.

Prokofiev’s string quartets are not heard anything like often enough so this was a welcome outing for the F Major Quartet, which was written in 1941 when the composer was evacuated from Moscow with other artists and musicians to the foothills of the Caucasus.  The work makes much use of the Kabardinian folk music to which Prokofiev was exposed during this period.  The opening Allegro sostenuto was pugnacious and acerbic and the Borodin Quartet brought out the highly inventive quality of the music.  Vladimir Balshin’s cello brought a sense of longing and wistfulness to the opening of the slow movement and I loved the change in mood and tone colour in the pizzicato section and some of the giddy scampering in the violins.  The fluctuating tempi and textures of the finale were well handled and the folk dance material was vividly characterised.  The various changes of mood were handled deftly with the music moving seamlessly from high drama to parody and the solo cello cadenza was exemplary.

The arrival of Kun Woo Paik for the Brahms Piano Quintet seemed to bring a greater sense of emotional directness into the playing.  The balance was spot on between all five players throughout and the first movement emerged with symphonic depth and gravitas.  I particularly liked Paik’s handling of the whirling piano figurations of the opening and the range of textures and sonorities he evoked.  I wondered if the strings could have injected more warmth and sweetness into the second subject, which seemed a little too restrained.  The opening of the slow movement was luminous and tender – again, there was exceptionally fine playing by Paik – and it bloomed in a poetic and rapturous way.  The rhythmic energy and breathless syncopations of the scherzo were conveyed brilliantly and all five players did a brilliant job in nailing the unsettled quality in the fugato.  They also succeeded in achieving a perfectly blended sound in the introduction to the finale.   Increasingly, one was caught up in the urgency, drama and dark turbulence of the music as it swept along to its inevitable conclusion.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable evening of first class chamber music.

Robert Beattie

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