The Uncompromising Interpretations of the Borodin Quartet Provide a Terrific Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven & Shostakovich: Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian, Sergei Lomovsky (violins); Igor Naidin (viola); Vladimir Balshin (cello)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 6.11.2016. (CC)

Beethoven – String Quartet in A major, Op.18 No.5; String Quartet in F, Op.135

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.14 in F sharp, Op.142

Part of the Borodin Quartet’s ongoing Beethoven and Shostakovich cycle, this concert was a welcome chance to reacquaint oneself with this eminent ensemble, a quartet formed some 70 years ago and with impeccable lineage. In 2015, to celebrate their 70th anniversary, the quartet issued a disc of Shostakovich Quartets, the first of a cycle, on Decca. That disc included the Fourteenth, heard on the present occasion.

First to the Beethoven, though. The Borodin Quartet plays with the utmost assurance. Ruben Aharonian is almost preternaturally still as he plays, his torso almost completely unmoving, his face pretty much a mask; the other players are hardly over-expressive in their movements, either. There is a discipline here that is the pure servant of the music, and the performances reflected this in their sheer dedication. There are elements here that one might identify with the “Russian” style of quartet playing, most obviously a severity to the Beethoven that keeps the composer’s gruff humour at bay. Thus it was that there was little sunshine to the first movement of Op.18/5 (neither was everything 100% accurate), and thus also it was that the wit of the second movement Menuet was minimised. The Andante cantabile, a set of variations, certainly revealed four absolutely equal players, as it should be of course, leaving the finale to persuade again through its sheer concentration. The Borodin Quartet does not really do Mendelssohnian lightness without there being some hint of undercurrent.

The late quartet in this concert was Op.135, the last full quartet and a miniature masterpiece The work is most famous for its finale, ‘Der schwer gefasste Entschluss’ (the difficult decision) and the question and answer held within the music: ‘Muss es sein? Es muss sein’ (Must it be? It must be). The writing in the first movement is exquisitely focused, and indeed here the Borodin Quartet seemed intent on underlining the stripped-down quality of the bare contrapuntal writing. There was welcome warmth from the viola/cello moments and there were some glorious exchanges. A pity the manic nature of the ensuing Vivace was somewhat blunted, something which in fairness was balanced by the superbly balanced textures of the third movement, Lento assai and the sheer drama of the finale, with its chordal shrieks. The Borodins left us in no doubt as to just how bold Beethoven’s writing is in this quartet.

The Shostakovich Fourteenth Quartet was written in 1973. Not quite as awe-inspiringly bleak as its neighbours, the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Quartets, No.14 is cast in three movements, an Adagio sandwiched between two Allegrettos. It is a remarkable piece, and somehow its sheer intensity of gesture seemed the perfect complement to Beethoven’s Op.135. In fact, both the intense gestures as well as the phantasmagorical/nightmarish passages seemed to mark Shostakovich as Beethoven’s natural successor in the string quartet medium in terms of sheer soul-baring. There was also a fascinating moment in which one of the folksy viola solos seemed in danger of veering off into the territory of Berio Folksongs, an indicator, perhaps, of the sheer range of Shostakovich’s expressive armoury.

The central Adagio is the expressive centre of the quartet and it held a remarkable passage for first violin wherein Aharonian’s raw tone seemed the height of expressivity. But it was the power of the finale that belied its rather tame allegretto marking. The way Shostakovich throws – indeed flings – thematic fragments between the instruments again seems to hearken back to late Beethoven while simultaneously catapulting the music forward in time.

The uncompromising interpretations of the Borodin Quartet remind us that great interpreters are still with us, and we cherish encounters with them all the more. A terrific concert. As is appropriate for late Shostakovich, there was no encore.

Colin Clarke

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