tue 28/06/2022

Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall

The name's the same, the poise remains but where's the spark?

They're still bringing Beethoven and Shostakovich to London, enriching the mix a little with the cross-referencing of Alfred Schnittke, but the personnel of the Borodin Quartet have changed again. Patriarch cellist Valentin Berlinsky, there at the start over 60 years ago, passed on his bow to Vladimir Balshin before he died.  Balshin is a worthy successor, especially since Berlinsky's tone had become translucent to the point of dematerialising and his successor's is rich indeed, but is "Borodin Quartet" now more a brand name than a vital entity?

Well, continuity is everything in the Russian tradition; much of the old team's famous flexibility and, when needed, its ineffable remoteness, remain in evidence. But competition even in the Shostakovich quartets at which these players excel is tough. Younger generation quartets like the Jerusalems and the Belceas show the hunger and play out the communication much more. It's not necessary to be demonstrative to get results; you only have to watch the Borodin Quartet of the 1980s on DVD to realise that everything is being transmitted inwardly. But when viola player Igor Naidin joined the team, there was a charming interplay with an often smiling Berlinsky, old enough to be his grandfather. That visual dimension has gone, and I'm not even sure what's being expressed any more.

Take the deservedly ubiquitous Shostakovich Eighth Quartet, the most celebrated in the canon of fifteen for its unmistakeable autobiographical quotations and its well-documented status as the composer's self-appointed requiem. Objectively, this is a poised interpretation. The Borodins still treat the work unsentimentally and unself-pityingly, bringing out the significant themes above the dark undertow of the opening movement. It's impressive how much distinction they make between that lament and its dying fall at the end of the quartet, movingly retreating into darkest night. They also link the Eighth to the classical nuances of the First Quartet which preceded it last night, and which in the past the quartet have repeated at the end of their celebrated cycle, as if to say all things go in circles. A small-scale gem from Shostakovich's maturity, it has much more between the lines than is dreamed of in the casually applied labels 'sunny' and 'relaxing' (yes, the old cliches popped up again in the programme).

Suitably remote and enigmatic in the Borodins' presentation, at least until the robust finale, the First gained from the finesse with which every movement was rounded out and concluded. Yet the Eighth surely needed more bite, more of a sense of the urgency which led to its creation. With such rifts demanding to be stretched to extremes in Schnittke's Third Quartet of 1983, it was clear that the present line-up weren't playing as if their lives depended upon it. You need to feel as if Schnittke's well-crafted Noah's Ark, with its pack of classical and baroque animals on board, might hit the rocks of expressionist nightmare at any minute - a queasy sensation experienced far more vividly in the young Harpham Quartet's Festival Hall performance last November.

Still, all credit to the Borodins for making the Schnittke the fulcrum of an intriguing programme, looking back to Shostakovich's musical monogram in the Eighth Quartet and forward to the theme and the even tougher mountaineering of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge. First violinist Ruben Aharonian, who hadn't been having his best evening in terms of intonation and rhythmic definition, was back on form for the supreme challenge of the Beethoven, very much in the bloodstream of at least three of the present team's players now. Even so, you wonder if they might not all benefit from more time out in the sun with the Haydn quartets, briefly represented in a temperature-lowering encore.

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