Memorable Shostakovich and Beethoven from the Borodin Quartet

 Shostakovich, Beethoven: Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall, London, 19.4.2015. (GD)

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10 in A flat major Op. 118
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor Op.110
Beethoven: String Quartet in C sharp minor Op. 131

Founded in 1945 in Moscow in the then USSR the Borodin Quartet is one of the longest lasting string quartets. They had a very special relationship with Shostakovich who consulted with them on each quartet. Tonight they coupled one of the lesser played quartets (the tenth) with probably the most often played and known quartet (the eighth).

 Listening to them I was amazed at the consistency of their playing style throughout the years. I was first introduced to the Shostakovich quartets through their famous 1970s recordings, which soon became benchmark recordings. Tonight they played in the same style. Since the 70s recordings there have, of course, been many other fine performances and recordings; despite this  the Borodin Quartet retained a very high rating as ‘classic’ recordings. I would define their general tone as obviously more Russian in the sense of a rich sonority coupled with a more grainy, unpolished tone. This is in contrast to some of the most recent recordings which sound highly polished, with a meticulously sharper sound – admirable in  its own terms, although light years away from the Borodin Quartet. All of these ‘more Russian’ qualities were in evidence in the opening of String Quartet No.10, with the ‘nervous’ violin monologue growing out of three initial rhythmic themes, answered by sustained, throbbing  chords over a slowly rising, falling cello melody. All these themes develop and inter-penetrate until the movement evaporates into space. All of this was superbly balanced and integrating with a real sense of each player listening to the other – a wonderful sense of dialogue.  These themes continue and develop into the sharply rhythmic, even ‘brutal’, second movement. These very Shostakovian repeated sharp rhythms were delivered with an extraordinary power which never degenerated into an unmusical mechanical tone, which happens with some of the more recent renditions. Everything sounded absolutely musical. All these very musical, very Shostakovian qualities were  carried over into the passacaglia third movement. The seemingly more relaxed finale with a simple melody, but the neat phrases of the melody are soon twisted and contorted into a parody of themselves. It becomes increasingly clear that this music is a master stroke of bitter irony.

 It is well known that Shostakovich wrote his String Quartet No. 8 while in Dresden (in 1960) to write the music (in three days) for a  film about the allied bombing of Dresden. At the time commentator’s saw the work as a homage to the thousands of people who suffered (or were killed) in  the bombing. But it is a work haunted by the composer’s musical signature DSCH and quotations from several of his works. This implied something more personal which his daughter Galina claimed that…’he wrote it for himself’. However his son Maxim claimed that it  was a work dedicated to all victims of totalitarianism. The composer’s friend Lev Lebedinsky claimed that it was a kind of epitaph to his own planned suicide; he had recently been diagnosed with a terminal sclerotic condition.

 The first movement begins with Shostakovich’s musical signature. It is a sad slow theme which can also be heard in his First Cello Concerto, his Symphony No. 10, Violin Concerto No. 1, Symphony No.15 and Piano Sonata No.2. There are quotes from many other works, including a revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’ and the aria ‘Seryozha my love’ from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, a work the composer was particularly fond of. One Russian commentator said that trying to decode the quartet was like trying to decode the esoteric signifiers in a Renaissance painting. Particularly compelling tonight was the G sharp minor Allegro molto with its almost brutal ostinato rhythms all emanating from the DSCH motif and signifying the dreaded movement of the whole gruesome war machine. All four players were in intensified unison, but this did not in any way limit the singular tone of each instrument. Special mention must be made of the Allegretto in the form of a laconic waltz (one of the composer’s favourite forms). In the coda the revolutionary song and the quotation from Lady Macbeth of Mtensk are consolidated into a contrapuntal elegy in the lower register for all four instruments, marked morendo. I have not heard this slightly bizarre, slightly haunting coda played with such conviction and empathy.

 The Quartet was brilliantly transcribed for string orchestra in 2000 by Rudolf Barshai. It is a marvellous alternative, but in the final analysis I prefer the original string quartet especially in a performance like the one heard tonight. In a strange sense it is both more intimate, more arresting and sharp in the dramatically rhythmical music.

 I was immediately struck by the Borodin Quartet’s quite swift and agile sounding opening fugue of Beethoven’s Op. 131. It is marked ‘Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo (slow but not too slow). This opening fugue provides the tonal summation of the work as a whole so it is vital that it coheres well, structured as it is  with and around the opposing poles of C sharp minor and D major. Here it is typical of Beethoven’s genius that the work’s tonal structure does not follow a linear narrative but a discontinuous and juxtaposed tonal scheme between the above mentioned polar tonal registers. Ultimately the quite swift tempo worked in the sense that there was enough space for the ‘molto expressivo’ Beethoven asks for. This was more a matter of meticulous timing; if it had been taken at a fractionally faster tempo it would not have worked. String quartets today tend to opt for slower tempi here – and in general – some performances work, others tend to drag. Earlier recorded string quartets like the Hungarian and Budapest Quartets took a similarly swift tempo. Perhaps the overall best example here is from the Busch Quartet who balance a broad tempo inflected with a sense of movement.

 The tonal diversity of Op. 131 which registers in keys as remote from each  other as B  minor and E major, were convincingly voiced by the Borodin Quartet. The brief and fragmented third movement with its quasi-operatic aria recitative ( a quite regular feature in late Beethoven) was given a suitably improvisatory tone that was entirely convincing. The fourth movement’s unbroken variation form was sustained well with a wonderful feeling of tempo flexibility which always maintained and sustained an inner coherence. The last  ‘Adagio non troppo e semplice’ variation was broadly outlined but with plenty of movement – a tempo which sounded absolutely right.

 The ‘presto’ scherzo was as mercurial and rhythmically ‘alive’ as one could wish for. The brief but trenchant C sharp minor adagio  made a wonderful contrast to the preceding scherzo, while, at the same time, anticipating the return to C sharp minor of the bi-thematic finale. With the Borodin Quartet everything was made to register with consummate clarity. The intensity of the two subjects, the dialectics of sonata form found their ‘identity in opposites’ in a way I have rarely heard either in actual performance or on record. The final peroration and the abruptly powerful coda had about them that ring of completeness that befits one of the tersest and most dramatic codas in all classical music. All through this concert the Borodin Quartet had the rare ability to project each player’s musical individuality, while at the same time always coming together as a superbly unified ensemble. All this was vividly evident tonight in a musical experience I shall remember for a very long time.


Geoff Diggines


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