It was my sad lot never to have heard Moscow's celebrated Borodin Quartet play a live concert before. I missed my chance last season, when they played at Dumbarton Oaks in April, but I was there on Wednesday night, October 19, as the group kicked off their 60th anniversary tour of North America at the Library of Congress. Yes, that's right, they came to Washington first, but they will go next to another place that's a pretty famous venue, Carnegie Hall (Zankel Hall, tonight at 7:30 pm, you New Yorkers).
Of course, it was also another chance to see cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who turns 80 years old this year, making music. Well, let's say that we hope it was our last opportunity to hear him play. He was the founding cellist of a group that called itself the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet in 1946 (they changed their name to honor the father of the Russian string quartet tradition in 1955). It is sometimes hard to know when to retire, and some octogenarians are still spry enough -- in general and specifically at their instruments -- to amaze. Yes, I am talking about you, Menahem Pressler. Berlinsky's consumptive, somewhat jejune tone and occasionally shaky performance may have been due to illness (we did hear the rattle of a bad cough once or twice), but I think it is fair to say that this celebrated musician has earned himself a rest. (Second violinist Andrei Abramenkov, who turned 70 this year, also seemed weak at points.)
Naturally, they had to play Borodin, and they offered the first string quartet, in A major, as the concert's first half. It's an endlessly inventive piece, inspired by a theme of Beethoven, according to the composer. The first movement opens with a slow, sad introduction, leading to a happy Allegro theme. When the quartet went into a fugal section, we heard the first really rocky moment in the cello part. Mostly, in more sustained sections, such as the very high, celestial conclusion to the first movement, the cello sound was better. The fast parts, such as the fast pizzicato punctuations in the scherzo, left something to be desired. The trio, with its odd music box harmonics, was suitably otherworldly.
Daniel Ginsberg, Borodin String Quartet At the Library of Congress (Washington Post, October 21)
This was followed with a rich dessert, the Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major, op. 133, stranded from its original quartet. As all of you readers undoubtedly know, a librarian at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., finally laid her hands on a lost Beethoven manuscript that was long suspected to be in their collection. The best coverage came in an article (A Historic Discovery, in Beethoven's Own Hand, October 13) by Daniel J. Wakin for the New York Times. (My favorite line in that article was the reaction of Beethoven specialist Lewis Lockwood, who is quoted as saying, "Wow! Oh my God! This is big. This is very big." Understandably, Maynard Solomon's reaction was a bit more circumspect.)
After he was obliged to remove the unsuccessful Great Fugue from the op. 130 quartet, Beethoven began this version for piano, four hands, in an attempt to make the work performable in an average home. He had hired another musician to try to do such an arrangement but hated the result, so he did it himself, only a few months before he died. Sotheby's will auction the manuscript in London on December 1, but New Yorkers will be able to see it at the New York office of Sotheby's from November 16 to 19. I am looking forward to having a published transcription, which I can make one of my piano students play with me. As for the original version, the Borodin Quartet played it well. I was especially impressed here, as in the rest of the concert, with the solid playing of first violinist Ruben Aharonian, who joined the quartet in 1996. He makes my kind of violin sound -- pure, strong, and deadly accurate -- and he appears to be the hope for the Borodin Quartet's future.