mon 08/08/2022

Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Longstanding traditions as vibrant as ever in Shostakovich and Beethoven

Rich, emphatic Russian sound: the Borodin QuartetAndy Staples

The Borodin Quartet has been playing for over 70 years, and in the early days collaborated closely with Dmitri Shostakovich. None of the players from then are in the line-up now, of course, but the group has worked hard to maintain its distinctive identity and performance traditions, even as the players change. And they have a good claim to continuity: Valentin Berlinsky, the legendary cellist who was with the quartet almost from the start, was still playing with them up until 2007.

Shostakovich and Beethoven are the Quartet’s specialities, and this concert was part of a cycle of the two composer’s quartets. Technically, this wasn’t as polished a performance as we might expect from such a revered ensemble, but the character was certainly there: the rich, emphatic Russian sound, the deliberate and unambiguous phrasing and a compelling sense of drama that energised the finales of both works.

Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet dates from 1964 and has the same sombre mood as the more famous Eighth that precedes it. But there is more irony here – folk tunes and nursery rhymes peer out through the gloom, heard in various forms, here acerbic, there naive. The opening is quiet and hesitant – too hesitant it seemed this evening, as the players initially struggled to focus their tone, both collectively and solo. But when this was achieved, a unique sonic profile emerged. First violinist Ruben Aharonian performed here with a husky and complex tone, not a pleasant sound in the top register but satisfyingly edgy lower down. And the other three players matched him well, carrying this sound right down to the bottom of the ensemble.

This was big-boned Beethoven, the textures rich and the tempos generally slow

The work alternates slow and fast movements, and there are occasional surprises, outbursts and sudden textural shifts. But the Borodins gave a performance that stressed continuity, with only the occasional individual solos breaking through the texture. Many of these proved problematic, with Aharonian often sounding approximate in his interjections and short cadenzas. Fortunately, the sheer dramatic impetus of the finale brought the performance to a convincing close. Here, the themes for the earlier movements return, now in different guises, and the varied characters that the players brought to each emphasised the semantic richness, balancing Shostakovich’s uncharacteristic bombast in the coda.

The husky, edgy tone of the Borodins’ Shostakovich disappeared in the second half, making way for a rounder, warmer sound in Beethoven’s first “Razumovsky” Quartet. An elegant and majestic cello solo at the opening also heralded a more secure technical performance, although Aharonian again struggled with some of the lighter filigree. Both the tone and the expression throughout the work were robust and definite. There was lyricism here too, but melodic beauty was never achieved at the expense of textural consistency or balance of ensemble.

This was big-boned Beethoven, the textures rich and the tempos generally slow – unfashionable, but compelling on its own terms. The adagio came off best, the warm-toned chords from the lower strings supporting elegant lines from the leader, all intonation worries now forgotten. Some surprising dramatic twists to round off the finale – unlike in the Shostakovich, the Borodins here pushed the tempo extremes, especially in the sudden outburst from nothing that ends the work. That felt excessive in a movement that had been much more even up until then. But no matter – an occasionally flawed recital, but with many moments of compelling beauty, and a valuable opportunity to experience a famous performing tradition, long-lived but as vibrant and distinct as ever.


The Borodin sound: rich and emphatic, with clear phrasing and compelling drama


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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