Borodin Quartet’s music-making of the highest order at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Borodin, Shostakovich: Borodin Quartet. Wigmore Hall, 30.1.2020. (AK)

Borodin Quartet

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.6 in G, Op.101

Beethoven – String Quartet in F, Op.18, No.1

Borodin – String Quartet in D, No.2

Formed in 1945 by four students at the Moscow Conservatory, the Borodin Quartet is still going strong with uninterrupted longevity and – as heard at this concert – musically it is wholly united. Over the decades they had to implement changes in personal but, evidently, from the artistic point of view the changes were frictionless.

Their current leader, Ruben Aharonian, joined the group in 1996, after a successful career as a soloist and conductor. Born in 1947, he is the eldest of the quartet as well as the joint longest-standing member with viola player Igor Naidin who also joined in 1996. (Second violinist Sergei Lomovsky and cellist Vladimir Balshin joined in 2011 and 2007 respectively.)

All four players are mature, experienced musicians – with cellist Balshin possibly the youngest at the age of 47 (Lomovsky’s age is undiscoverable) – and fully committed to seamless musical integration. In fact, their immaculate ensemble playing is mirrored even in their uniform concert attire: all black, with a hint of Russian flavour for the collar in their shirt design.

For me the most striking feature of the concert was the group’s dignified and focused discipline without any showmanship whatsoever. The players were clearly on stage to deliver detailed and transparent reading of the scores, not to show how much they enjoyed themselves.

The audience, packing the Wigmore Hall to the seams, either knew what to expect or just responded appropriately: during the whole concert there was no audience sound, fidgeting or the like; one could have heard a pin drop on the carpet. Giving enthusiastic applause after each piece on the programme, the listeners consisted of serious and appreciative music lovers; real Wigmore people, not personal fans/friends of the musicians. Indeed, it was noticeable that on conclusion of the concert everybody was heading to the exit, not towards the artists’ room. Communication between performers and listeners was, on this occasion, solely via the music.

I do not know if Shostakovich’s passacaglia theme in the third movement (Lento) of his Sixth Quartet originated from a folksong or revolutionary song – some of which do appear in other Shostakovich compositions – but for sure the players sang beautifully on their instruments. Cellist Vladimir Balshin set the tone by his beautiful cantilena rendering of the ten-bar solo cello introduction, allowing viola player Igor Naidin to present the theme with what sounded to me like the soul of Russian people.

The sound which Balshin and Naidin drew out of their instruments is astonishing. They have good quality instruments but not by any of the great masters – in fact, it is not known who made either the viola or the cello – and they use metal strings. Yet, the sound produced by these players radiates warmth. Cellist Balshin’s ability to produce a singing tone with his bow in long tied-over notes (without the aid of vibrato or with minimal vibrato) is a rarity. It so happens that there are a high number of such notes both in the Shostakovich and Borodin quartets.

The first movement of the Beethoven quartet (Allegro con brio) could not have been more ‘brio’, while in the last movement (Allegro) the notes of fast passages sparkled as pearls.

First violinist Ruben Aharonian’s mastery of the violin served well the beautiful aria-type melody of the second movement (Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato) which he delivered with passion but also with classical discipline. Both of the violinists employed agogics (rubato within the bar) without moving their own bodies: the right hand bowed, the left hand fingered and the performer stayed still. In addition (or because of it) the rests in the score, in particular in this slow movement, became significant and powerful: performers and listeners shared the important function of the rest. (Otto Klemperer used to say that the most important part of the music is the rest.)

Cellist Balshin relished his exposed solo melodies in the first and third movements (Allegro moderato and Notturno) of the Borodin quartet but you could only hear, not see, his obvious affinity with the music. A research chemist by day, Borodin was an accomplished cellist who participated in chamber music concerts: arguably the Notturno solo may be a declamation about whether Borodin’s passion was chemistry or music. Cellist Balshin convinced about the latter.

It was a privilege to be present at this concert; it was true music-making of the highest order.

Agnes Kory

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