United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Arensky: Borodin Quartet (Ruben Aharonian & Sergei Lomovsky [violins], Igor Naidin [viola], Vladimir Balshin [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 9.10.2019. (CS)
Tchaikovsky – String Quartet No.1 in D Op.11
Arensky – String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.35
Tchaikovsky – Album pour enfants Op.39 (arr. Rostislav Dubinsky)
Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Borodin. The roll call of Russian Romantic masters on the front of the programme may have led the full audience at Wigmore Hall to anticipate an evening of sensuous lyricism driven by forceful passion, anguished self-doubt and brooding drama. If so, they would have been surprised, for the Borodin Quartet’s recital of late nineteenth-century Russian chamber music was more notable for its Classical precision and elegance than for excessive Romantic majesty or melancholy.
This was an evening where immaculate ensemble-playing and tonal beauty were accompanied by discerning musicianship. Although they have been regular visitors to Wigmore Hall, I had not previously heard a live performance by the Borodin Quartet, though I am familiar with some of their recordings, including their recent Shostakovich cycle. I was initially struck by the composure and concord of the ensemble. During a performance by, say, the Carducci, Sacconi, Elias, Belcea, Wihan, Takács or Pavel Haas Quartets – to name just a few of the many ensembles whose playing I have enjoyed at Wigmore Hall and elsewhere of late – often one gains a strong sense of the independent characters of the individual musicians, as they engage vigorously in musical debates and dialogues to achieve a collective vision. Here, one sensed that we were being presented not so much with the process of debate but with the outcome of such conversations: the assimilation of individual perspectives and personalities into a persuasively integrated unity.
That’s not to say that four voices lack individual identities. Leader Ruben Aharonian – who, with viola player Igor Naidin, joined the Quartet in 1996 – cuts a remarkably ‘still’ figure on the platform, his head and body seeming motionless. (Indeed, watching Aharonian I was taken back to my student days and my teacher’s remedy for what he saw as an excessively ‘busy’, and ineffective, bowing technique: I spent several months practising while standing with the upper half of my bowing arm against a wall, so that I couldn’t move it!) If Aharonian’s clean tone and effortless manner might seem a little too coolly efficient at times then Naidin, in contrast, while never overly demonstrative, projects a beautiful lyrical tone which seems to gently nudge against the calm unanimity. Second violinist Sergei Lomovsky, who in 2011 became the most recent recruit, nestles in between them, slightly crouched, brow intense, eyes focused firmly on his score, while cellist Vladimir Balshin, who joined four years earlier, provides a poised and gracious foundation for the ensemble sound. But, it is the unperturbed accord of the whole that is most remarkable.
Of the two quartets that the Borodin Quartet performed in the first half of the recital, I found Arensky’s Second Quartet the most persuasively interpreted. Their rather restrained approach to Tchaikovsky’s mellifluous First Quartet seemed to me to deny the music the fullness of its lyrical expression. Certainly, the technical assurance – the synchronicity of passagework, unanimity of bow strokes, flawless intonation, blended soft-grained tone – was impressive. But, striving for gentility and clarity, the Borodin seemed, I thought, to withdraw their sound a little too much at times; the first Allegro is marked con fuoco but I sensed little of Tchaikovsky’s nervous agitation and energy here. Elsewhere, I wanted a more sumptuous bloom and, in particular, for Aharonian’s tone to have had a little more brightness to complement its sweetness. The familiar Andante Cantabile was serene, the line sensitively shaped, though the inner voices might have had greater presence to reveal the true soulfulness of the movement. The ensemble’s feather-light staccato up-bow brushes brought genial grace to the Scherzo while the Finale: Allegro giusto had a light spirit, textual clarity and a lovely spontaneity which created joyful impetus towards the close.
After what was undoubtedly an affectionate reading of Tchaikovsky’s quartet, the Borodin’s performance of Arensky’s Quartet No.2 seemed to me to possess more vitality and heart. It begins with a pulsing motif, not dissimilar to Tchaikovsky’s opening Moderato, but here the sound was less distanced, richer, given direction by a firmer bass line, and this had the effect of creating greater fluidity and freedom. The well-known Variations unfolded with self-possession and a clear appreciation of the relationship of each variant to the extended sequence. Naidin, in particular, relished the moments of lyric intensity but Balshin, too, enjoyed the melodic eloquence of his slow variation, playing with authority and dignity. The lucidity was sustained and revealing, the tender postlude concluding with a gentle but sincere ‘Amen’. In the Finale, the crystal-clear precision of the complex contrapuntal exchanges was energising, while elsewhere strong but silky bow strokes brought forth a resonant tone.
The recital concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Schumann-inspired Album for Children. Dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s nephew, Vladimir Davydov, its 24 short movements, modelled on Kinderszenen, present a portrait of genteel Russian domesticity: morning prayers, children’s games, folksongs and dancing, daily rituals. Violinist Rostislav Dubinksy, one of the founding members of the Borodin Quartet, made this arrangement for string quartet and his transcription seemed custom-made for the Quartet’s combination of a harmonious whole coloured with decorous individual expression.
Given that string quartets are not short of repertoire, one might wonder by Dubinksy took the trouble to make his arrangement, but such questions were answered by the delicacy, care and meticulousness with which the Borodin Quartet drew forth the flavour of each brief movement: the poised trot of ‘The Little Horseman’; the proud bearing of ‘The Toy Soldier’s March’ with its sprightly alternation of arco and pizzicato steps; the approach and departure of the solemn cortege which attends ‘The Doll’s Burial’; the playful impishness of ‘A Nursery Tale’, in which one imagines the toys embarking on a nocturnal escapade. The four national songs were finely characterised, the Russian melody noble and restrained, the ‘Italian Song’ particularly fresh and free, that heralding from Naples brimming with the strumming vitality of Carnival time. Balshin’s melody sang warmly in ‘Sweet Dreams’ while in ‘The Lark’ the purity of Aharonian’s high-flying tone equalled that of the eponymous warbler.
A trip to the Underworld courtesy of English National Opera will prevent me from returning to Wigmore Hall on Friday evening for the second of the Borodin Quartet’s evening recitals when they will perform Schubert’s Rosamunde quartet and Shostakovich’s final quartet, but I look forward to their lunchtime concert on Monday when more Tchaikovsky miniatures will precede a performance, with pianist Barry Douglas, of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet.