The Borodin Quartet is one of the world’s great chamber music groups. Formed in 1945 by students at the Moscow Conservatoire its members have included the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich, Rostislav Dubinsky, Rudolf and Nina Barshai, Mikhail Kopelman and a handful of others. While its repetoire has always included the core of the works composed for string quartet, it became synonymous with the works of Alexander Borodin and Dmitri Shostakovich.
In some ways too, it is a time capsule of Soviet history. They were required to play at Stalin’s funeral and various members defected to the West. But with the late cellist Valentin Berlinsky in particular holding the fort from the very beginning, the quartet has, for nearly seventy years, sought to maintain and deliver nothing but the highest standards of chamber musicianship. And they did so emphatically to the Auckland Town Hall audience on Thursday evening in an intriguing and challenging programme of Myaskovsky, Shostakovich and Beethoven.
Nikolai Myaskovsky might not be a name that would come to mind when listing famous Russian composers but before World War 2, his music was admired and appreciated around the world. Like his contemporaries and friends Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachachurian, he was affected the political climate of the Stalin era but unlike them, his reputation since his death in 1950 steadily declined. His 13th string quartet, composed in the year before his death is a musically nostalgic work, more late Romantic and closer to someone like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff than modernist. Conventionally structured, it is not particularly inspiring, but it did give us the opportunity to appreciate the Borodin Quartet’s exceptional ensemble playing and intonation. First violin Ruben Aharonian’s playing in particular was a highlight here.
Jump ahead some fifteen years or so and we get to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eleventh String Quartet. This mysterious, yet elegiac work has absolutely no trace of throwback to the musical traditions of the past. Firmly embedded in the tonal language of the composer and of the time, it is an unusual and demanding seven movement work played without a break. In part, it is a tribute to Vassily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet who premiered nearly all of Shostakovich’s string quartets.
Not taking away anything from any other part of the evening, but this is where the Borodin Quartet excelled. In a work with so many textures ranging from mechanical repetition to hints of Caucasian rhythms and with harmony contrasted against deliberate dissonance, not unlike a troubled mind asking questions all the time, there was absolute clarity throughout. So good was this performance, I was still totally absorbed by it throughout the interval.
Late Beethoven works are always intimidating to the performer and listener given their complexity. His 13th String Quartet Op. 130 is no exception. Originally containing what became the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge, Beethoven was not happy when told that the second and fourth movements had been encored. “And why didn’t [the audience want] the Fugue?”, he growled. “That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!” Somehow, he was persuaded to write a new final movement which, thankfully, is a lot more optimistic.
The Borodin Quartet again showed exceptional attention to detail throughout, particularly to harmony and balance, dynamic contrasts and phrasing, never losing their concentration for a second. The fourth (German Dance), fifth (Cavatina) and sixth movements were standout performances. Music making does not get better than that.
We did not leave without an encore – what else could it be than the Nocturne from Borodin’s Second String Quartet. Dedicated to a friend who had specially flown in for this concert, it was magically played. The perfect encore to this perfect concert.