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16.2.11

Ionarts-at-Large: Borodin at Wigmore Hall

A Russian string quartet program without Shostakovich? Almost unthinkable. But there are a whole lot of worthies in that great string quartet shadow that Shostakovich cast, and the Borodin Quartet (the group, not the piece), long the foremost Shostakovich -interpreters, took it upon themselves to cast light on it in their Wigmore Hall recital this February. The definitely, sadly neglected Nikolai (Yakovlevich) Myaskovsky was presented with his last string quartet, No.13, op.86 in a-minor from 1949. Igor Stravinsky had his Concertino for String Quartet given an outing. It’s the first of three guises of this work, composed in 1920 when the Flonzaley Quartet wanted a contemporary alongside their predominantly classical repertoire. And the First Quartet of the performers’ name-giving composer, Alexander Borodin, was on the program, too.


available at Amazon
Borodin, Myaskovsky, Stravinsky, String Quartets Nos.1, 13, Concertino,
Borodin Quartet
Onyx
For a 1949 work, the Myaskovsky work might be notably tonal; conservative even by Soviet/Russian standards. But it never abandons a driven frenzy that rears its brooding head everywhere, including the otherwise superficially gay Presto fantastico. Elsewhere the quartet lingers melancholically and with pathos—emotionally weighty and grave, but never heavy in musical terms—or chugs ahead in the last movement that pits the violins against the lower voices.

The six-minute, one-movement Concertino—essentially a string trio with a solo violin part—arevels in light dissonance as if to put one over on a conservative audience; it sounds tonally adventurous but doesn’t sound like it means it. It slowly builds up the tension and force that eventually makes immediate sense to the ears. A tighter, harder driven, and more focused take on the piece than was the Borodin’s would have missed out on the laconic, even (intentionally or not) ironic, style, but made for more riveting conventionally compelling listening.

The first of Borodin’s quartets is a melodic, quaffable affair; its middle movement here a little aimless, the Presto short and sweet. The ensemble, meanwhile, sounded better than when I last heard them some five, six years ago at the Library of Congress, then still with founding cellist Valentin Berlinsky. Berlinsky had been a reminder of the great past of the quartet but also musically a liability, and made the wise decision to retire four years ago. His replacement, generous-toned, soft-hued Vladimir Balshin, fits in the ensemble seamlessly. That the quality of a string quartet is not necessarily, nor entirely determined by the individual quality of its members was made enchantingly: Attack, articulation, precision were all executed with some liberties, a little wiggle-room—but that only resulted in a warm, forgiving glow in these engaging performances. A typically fine night at Wigmore Hall, where the schedule is so full of chamber music and recital goodies that one should really pitch a tent there.

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