The Borodin Quartet on the Shostakovich Quartets and Their Own Legacy: Celebrating the 70th Anniversary

The Borodin Quartet on the Shostakovich Quartets and Their Own Legacy: Celebrating the 70th Anniversary


The Borodin Quartet has always been one of the world’s great chamber ensembles. Formed in 1945, with original members that briefly included cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and violist Rudolph Barshai, the group has now gone through three incarnations. The linking force was cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who was a member for 62 years before his retirement in 2007. The first era had Rostislav Dubinsky as first violin from 1945 to 1976, and they recorded the first 11 Shostakovich quartets for EMI/Melodiya in 1967. The second era featured Mikhail Kopelman, who served as leader from 1976 to 1996: the full 15 quartets were recorded in the early 1980s for the same company, and selected quartets done later for Virgin. The Borodin’s current incarnation is relatively new. First violin Ruben Aharonian and violist Igor Naidin joined in 1996, while cellist Vladimir Balshin took over for Berlinsky in 2007 and second violin Sergei Lomovsky came in 2011. They are now embarking on a complete Shostakovich cycle for Decca which brings some nostalgia with it: the ensemble’s first recording for a Western company (coupling Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and the Borodin Second) was for Decca in 1962.

Vancouver was the only North American city in which the group performed the entire Shostakovich cycle: the quartets were played in consecutive order over 5 evenings in May. One reason for this celebration was that Eric Wilson, Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music, invited the ensemble to perform the 11 then-written quartets in the much tougher times of the late 1960s, and has maintained a close relationship ever since. We sat down with the Borodin Quartet between their second and third performances and talked about all things Shostakovich. It was a remarkably relaxed and wide-ranging interview, and we were fortunate that Igor Naidin could communicate the essence of the group’s thoughts in English.

Geoffrey Newman: When you perform the complete Shostakovich cycle sequentially is it a different experience for you than playing the works in some other combination?

Borodin Quartet: In many ways, we believe (Ruben in particular) that each of these quartets is absolutely unique, and we would give it the same presentation no matter in what context or order it was played. The 15 quartets cover a good portion of Shostakovich’s life (from when he was over 30 to the very end), and we think of each quartet as a response to a very special set of circumstances in the composer’s journey. Nonetheless, when we play them all in a row, we do give the audience an opportunity to experience this journey. Perhaps it’s not our principal goal, but it’s one of the consequences: the audience can see for themselves how different these works are and how separate an experience each of them is. If you play, say, just a couple of quartets, you take it for granted that they are a unique pieces and don’t see them within the full range.

GN: So, in this sense, Shostakovich’s quartets cannot be easily grouped like Beethoven’s?

BQ: We would agree that Beethoven can be more easily grouped: the so-called early, middle and late quartets. In Beethoven, it is easier to see how he developed as the genre progressed, becoming different, eventually leading to new forms of string quartet writing. In Shostakovich, there is a huge difference even between Quartets No. 1 and No. 2, though they were written only a few years apart. The first is very spring-like with a spirited pulse (a very typical chamber piece), yet No. 2 already has something to do with symphonic style and symphonic thinking. What stands out from the 6th on is that each breaks with traditional form in its own way: a different number of movements, unconventional lengths and tempos, the continuous playing of movements and so on. These innovations in form and style are like Beethoven’s late quartets.  Thus one composer undertook bold experiments in the 19th century and one in the 20th century, and the very last quartets of each (Op. 130 and 131 for Beethoven, and from No. 11 for Shostakovich) have a completely different shape and power. Of course, both composers give us their own special journey. And we can see development, it’s inevitable. We are all human beings, and those geniuses were too.

GN: You must have some temptation to illustrate these journeys in your concert programmes?

BQ: We used to have a programme where we grouped Shostakovich 1, 8, and 15, and we played this concert a number of times. We also used to play Beethoven Op. 130, 131, 132 and the last 5 Shostakovich quartets in a series of concerts.

GN: I agree with you that each of the Shostakovich quartets attempts to say something quite unique, but I still think there are structural devices and ways of developing motives that are somehow common to many of his quartets. Don’t you think this is so?

BQ: Remember you are the representative of the great listeners! You hear it from the outside, and we hear it mostly from the inside. Sometimes we share our views with others, and we hear from professional and non-professional listeners alike something very different than we feel  ̶  not worse points of view, just a different angle. So it is easy to understand what you mean: in the Quartet No. 4, the 2nd movement could be seen as similar to No. 14, and his 2nd quartet might tie to No. 15’s Intermezzo. Perhaps there is an arc here: maybe Shostakovich had something in mind which he developed in the later quartets, or he used some ideas from his youth – who knows? The same with Beethoven: even in his Op. 18, you can find the grain of the things that came in the late quartets. For example, Op. 18, no. 6, in the last movement the introduction (melancholia) has something to do with late Beethoven, and he gets back to a similar feeling after many years.

GN: Do you think there are any weak spots in the Shostakovich quartets?

BQ: No, there are no really weak spots, absolutely none. Perhaps one might identify a few pauses, like Quartet No. 6 – but maybe not.

GN: What is your assessment of why the 8th was the first quartet to break through to the West and to the world at large?

BQ: This is a question that is often posed by our colleagues. First of all, this quartet is probably not that much different or greater than the other quartets by Shostakovich. However, it seems to communicate a language and emotions that are immediately understandable to everyone. Perhaps to understand Quartet No. 9, or No. 7, you need to be more than just an amateur listener. It’s more difficult to read them. No. 8 stands like Beethoven’s 5th: it brings the information  ̶  the code  ̶  to every gene, to everybody on the globe. What also gave No. 8 further popularity was that Rudy Barshai insisted to Shostakovich that a chamber orchestra version be constructed. This gave audiences more chances to hear it.

GN: Many have talked for years about the influence of Mahler on Shostakovich. Do you see that influence in the quartets?

BQ: Absolutely! For Shostakovich, there were three Gods: Mahler, Mussorgsky and Beethoven. Some time ago, we heard in Vienna a performance of Mahler’s lst Symphony. When discussing this after, we all remarked on the fact that Mahler used almost the same language and procedures as Shostakovich did later in his Quartet No. 4. But the influence goes further: the insistence on huge forms and a greater range of expression, with no limitation on the number of movements. Just as Mahler departed so far from the traditional forms of the symphony, so Shostakovich’s work can be seen to have some of the characteristics and feelings of a Mahler-like dramatic cycle.

GN: 70 years is an incredible lifespan for a string quartet, and we are now in the third incarnation of the Borodin Quartet, a full 40 years after Shostakovich’s death. How has it been possible to keep the ensemble together?

BQ: Since cellist Valentin Berlinsky was with the quartet from its origin in 1945 until his retirement in 2007, and violist Dmitri Shebalin was with the ensemble for over 40 years from 1953, it has been easier than it looks. These two were the stable parts of the ensemble as the violinists varied, so the authentic fabric of the ensemble could be preserved. It’s natural for a quartet to change this way – with leading and stable parts of the process. Of course, things like the ‘bowings’ are handed down from the previous generations, and we have all the past markings. We keep everything as a reference and decide together on any changes that might be necessary.

GN: But there is little doubt that the ensemble’s sound and style of playing has changed somewhat over the years?

BQ: This is a difficult question, and there are many opinions. What is clear is that the quartet has had three completely different first violinists. When the first violinist plays differently, it is natural that the whole group will play differently. On the other hand, differences in the ensemble’s sound over the generations can really be perceived by those who have actually heard the prior Dubinsky-led and Kopelman-led ensembles in person. As we discussed in the UK recently, for those who have heard the earlier Shostakovich performances only through recordings, what one hears need not be a good guide to the quartet’s sound. Even comparing the quality of the 1967 versions under Dubinsky and the early 1980s version under Kopelman involves listening to recordings that are very different in acoustic and tone quality. Ruben has also said that said that the differences are again dramatic in comparing the latter with the recordings we just released for Decca this year. And these differences are so important  ̶  even forgetting about the differences in the violinists, the different instruments and the genuinely musical differences.

GN: I understand completely what you mean. Even the re-mastering of the 1967 performances by Chandos in the past decade yields a sound that is different than what I remember from the original LP release.

BQ: Yes, those are the same LP performances that Dubinsky’s widow, Luba Edlina, sold to Chandos. They wanted to take the old quality, turn it digital, and, yes, it became different, even the same recording.

GN: But I still have the feeling that your Shostakovich sound is warmer than your predecessors.

BQ: In many ways, we cannot really judge, we can only produce the sound from the inside. Berlinsky always said: ‘We cannot really describe the quality of our sound.  It is the job of music critics to describe our sound’. That said, in the first generation of the quartet there were very strict rules and procedures in sound production. Quartets used a lot less vibrato, so they were sharper and more pointed in expression. We do use the absence of vibrato as a special color, but we don’t do it very often. At the same time, we do not see Shostakovich as at all public or Romantic. We used to say that Shostakovich cannot be played beautifully like Borodin. Some places allow, and require, you to play with great beauty, but not just ‘beautifully’.

GN: I have always wondered about the exact relationship between Shostakovich and the Beethoven Quartet, who gave the premieres of so many of his quartets. Did he coach them as much as he coached you?

BQ: Shostakovich was coaching the Borodin quartet, not the Beethoven. The members of the Beethoven Quartet were the composer’s compatriots, artists of similar age and fellow professors at the conservatory. Maybe only in terms of the text – they were the closest friends. Yet for Shostakovich, it was very important to maintain the highest human relationship possible. It would not be right for him to dedicate his works to the younger generation while the elder generation looked on. The Beethoven Quartet gave all 14 first performances of his quartets and received six dedications.

GN: If Shostakovich were sitting here right now, what would he be thinking?

BQ: He was very timid man, and very shy. He would feel very awkward to have so much attention given to him. His letters reveal that he was not used to being praised, like we’ve done for the last 40 years  ̶  although he was very famous and he knew it. Ruben met him, introduced by his son Maxim. It was a short meeting in the Conservatory when the composer was very old. The rest of us were all already born but too young to meet him. Yet we knew Shostakovich pretty well from the stories of Berlinsky and Shebalin, right from when we were originally studying with them. Berlinsky said enough, believe me!

GN: It must have been a real adjustment for the quartet when Berlinsky retired in 2007, and died the next year. Second violin Sergei Lomovsky also joined in 2011. With these adjustments, how difficult was it to get up to full speed again?

BQ: Of course, the quartet is an organism, which means the more you play together, the better you become. This is inevitable. But we didn’t feel that bad when we started the transition; cellist Vladimir Balshin had already spent almost a season substituting for Berlinsky before officially joining the group. But there is a clear difference playing together for one year, or 5 or 10. You’re always becoming more united, and it’s natural to expect this.

GN: It is now exactly 40 years since Shostakovich’s death. Do you think we are we losing contact with what the composer felt and intended to say – or is there still enough of a legacy?

BQ: For us, there is still enough of a legacy. We don’t know about the future, but for ourselves and for the Russian people (those living in Russia and brought up in the Russian Soviet Union) there is no loss in the feeling of Shostakovich. Maybe it’s more complicated for Russians who are 20 years old now, and other nationalities brought up in other countries, that get information only indirectly.

GN: Speaking of legacy, it must amaze you just how many string quartets (and especially young ones) play Shostakovich these days. I am not sure that the earlier generations of your ensemble could have foreseen this explosion.

BQ: The quality of the musicians in other countries performing Shostakovich these days is truly outstanding, and everything is performed in sublime dynamics and music, everything! People now have a great knowledge of Shostakovich’s time and even what he was thinking when he was composing. Ruben wants to add that sometimes we get comments that our Shostakovich sounds completely different than that performed by artists in the West. He is certainly not keen on thinking that we are doing anything better. We don’t do it better but, perhaps, we feel it better – in a way that is closer to the composer. Yeah, it’s the authenticity of the feeling, because it’s fantastic how many people play Shostakovich around the globe, and how well they do it. But when we receive the comments like ‘you guys are doing it completely differently’, maybe this is it.

GN: You have performed the Shostakovich quartets throughout the world and for many years. You must get some feeling about the fundamental things that your audiences relate to, and why these quartets cast such a spell.

BQ: Shostakovich, like all genius composers, embraces everything. It’s music about everything, even though it’s in an intimate genre. In every hall, every member of the audience gets something for themselves, something very different, sometimes very profound, yet always very personal. Sometimes people say, ‘I can feel this is outstanding, but I don’t understand it well, and I don’t fully get it (I’m not trained, or it’s too complicated for me), but even so, I can still understand that it is something outstanding’. What they say is true: it’s a very complicated and rich marriage in his music. It’s the marriage of everything – of his difficult life, of his emotions, of his musical genre. There are some parts of the music which can be perceived easily  ̶  it’s popular, like some works of Vivaldi, for example  ̶  but there is also music that is no less outstanding, where you require a little bit of a trained ear. Then there are pieces of truly ‘genius’ music that require a thorough upbringing to really understand. Youngsters who have limited exposure to classical music will not get it as we trained listeners can but, in those wonderful quiet moments, they can definitely figure out that there is something unusual going on. It is not boring for them, not like just sitting and scratching their heads and wondering when it’s over. This is how Shostakovich works – even without much musical background, people can feel it. Mravinsky used to say, ‘Shostakovich’s symphonies are the diaries of the great Soviet epoch; his chamber music reveals all his truly intimate letters and feelings’.

Geoffrey Newman

I am indebted to Kelly Bao for recording and transcriptional assistance.

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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