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Borodin Quartet at the Library of Congress

Borodin Quartet at the Library of Congress, October 19, 2005It 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.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Borodin String Quartet At the Library of Congress (Washington Post, October 21)
The Borodin Quartet's speciality, other than their namesake, has always been Beethoven and Shostakovich. In fact, they worked directly with the latter composer and made the first and second definitive complete Shostakovich quartet recordings. They did not give us Shostakovich at the Library, but we did have Beethoven's op. 95 "Serioso" quartet in F minor to begin the second half. It's a sphinx of a piece, called "splenetic" and "restless" by critics. Manuscript evidence seems to indicate that Beethoven extensively revised the work after its first performance. The first movement (Allegro con brio) had dash, but not too much brio, and a noncommital approach to the slightly odd, open-sounding conclusion. There was a great attacca moment as the Borodins lunged into the passionate outbursts of the opening bars of the third movement (Allegro assai vivace ma serioso), and the fourth movement's theme had a nice, folksongy quality. Strangely, for such an often somber work, the little agitated coda of the last movement takes us unexpectedly into the parallel major, which sounds like it has been tacked on to the end.

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.


Garth Trinkl said...

I'll be there again the next time cellist Valentin Berlinsky chooses to perform with this quartet. It is up to him and his colleagues to decide. While, yes, his playing was at times a bit shakey (and he seemed a little ill in appearance), his playing did not, in my view, compromise greatly three fine performances and interpretations. Given the plethora of promising string quartets comprised of performers in their early and mid-twenties (whose performances are sometimes also shakey), I'll accept the presence of 80, 90, and 100 year old musicians if the quartet as a whole does not feel overall musical quality and values are compromised. Let the musicians decide!

Middle-late and late Beethoven written by a deaf composer and performed by 80, 90, or 100 year olds is fine in my book.

Charles T. Downey said...

I didn't walk out, meaning that I clearly enjoyed myself. It was still a good concert. What I said had to be said, I thought, which is why I wrote it.

Furthermore, I do wonder how the rest of the Borodins think of Berlinsky hanging on -- and this is purely speculative -- but the three other players seemed to band together, by the way they sat on stage and entered and exited. The cellist seemed isolated, but perhaps the others just didn't want to catch his cold.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Love the Borodin 4et! Always have. It really brings a very certain Weltanschaung, the Borodin/ Beethoven/ Shostakovich mix. No one like this 4et. Can't even begin to imagine who's going to take on that repertoire, and do so well at it.

(1) If one were to buy a recording or two (telling oneself that it was a holiday gift for someone else but really thinking one might keep it for oneself), of the Borodin in its/ their prime, which recordings would you recommend?

And what's news on my beloved Emerson 4et?

(Many hours at college they were in residence, many hours of delightful Beethoven, sitting up close in the front row, with HC Robbins-L. prof in residence! Miss those guys.)

(2) If one were to buy a holiday gift/ treat for my doctor and poli sci college buds who were there, which Emerson recordings would you recommend?

Garth Trinkl said...

Charles, I know that you were writing what you felt had to be said -- as a critic. I was responding to you simply as one who has attended 500 concerts at the LoC, and found this one rather sublime -- especially of late -- despite some imperfections.

Let the Borodin Quartet members consider your critical opinion, and that of other critics, and then make a decision. I know that this is hard, and that, for example, the role of Robert Mann in the Juilliard SQ -- and the role of the Juilliard SQ at the LoC for that matter -- are very touchy matters.

Thanks again for your review (and for staying for the second half!)

Charles T. Downey said...

You don't get much better in terms of the program offered, do you? And, yes, there were some very beautiful moments. I shouldn't dwell on the negative.

jfl said...

1.) The Borodin's recording that ought to be had, at any price, is their second cycle of Shostakovich Quartets (comes with the p-Quintet with some pianist called Richter and the amazing pieces for String Octet). It was on Melodiya and for a while circulated on a BMG re-issue. Worth browsing the net and used-CD stores for.

2.) The Emerson's top recordings are Shostakovich (but Borodin is better) and late Beethoven (where Takacs is better) and Bartok (where Takacs is better). Try them instead for Webern or modern American composers. The Emerson is perfect - but not everything in music is perfection. Stay away from Haydn and Schubert with the EQ4t.

3.) If the old guy scratches, he scratches. At least ionarts says it how we hear it.



Princess Alpenrose said...

Oooh, goody, goody! I can work with that info. Thanks jfl.

[Believe me we couldn't "stay away" from Haydn when EQ4t and HCRL were in the same room. Didn't have much choice at the time. Can you say overdose? ugh.]

Garth Trinkl said...

Make sure you get the recording of the Shostakovich Quintet (dedicated to the composer's mother) recorded with pianist Svyatoslav Richter. Richter, from Zhytomyr, Ukraine, was also -- as you may know --a visual artist known for his drawings and pastel landscapes. Maybe Mark, Jens, or Andrea can try to find links to his artwork, if interested.... Thanks Charles and Jens for the latest excellent musical reviews.