October 29, 2009


Beethoven: Complete String Quartets and Große Fuge. Borodin Quartet (Ruben Aharonian and Andrei Abramenkov, violins; Igor Naidin, viola; Valentin Berlinsky, cello). Chandos. $69.99 (8 CDs).

     One of the world’s longest-lived string quartets, the Borodin Quartet – which was founded in 1945 by Moscow Conservatory students as the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet and adopted its present name a decade later – is also one of the world’s most distinguished. It is best known for its relationship with Shostakovich, who consulted the quartet’s members on every one of his 15 works in this form. The group’s performances of the Shostakovich cycle are therefore as close to definitive (in terms of understanding the composer’s intentions) as anyone’s can be.

     But the Borodin Quartet also made a specialty of Beethoven, recording his complete quartets twice: once for Virgin Classics (2003) and again for a series of Chandos CDs building up to the group’s 60th anniversary in 2005. Chandos has now released the entire eight-CD set of its cycle in a single box, and it is an unusual and fascinating set to hear. The playing is powerful and focused throughout, and the sound is exemplary – unmarred by the sort of miking, unfortunately common these days, in which the musicians’ breathing is as audible as some of their notes. The works have the feeling of near-perfect live performances, which means they are not exactly done according to the score but are filled with small instances of emphasis and rubato in which the quartet members engage so naturally and with such apparent ease that they sound as if they are casually getting together to make music that just happens to be of the very highest quality. The weighting of the instruments is particularly good: even in tutti passages, individual voices stand out clearly (abetted, again, by the fine sound quality), and the result is a clarity of expression that comes through particularly effectively in the sudden, dramatic chords that are a Beethoven hallmark throughout the cycle.

     What is especially unusual about the Borodin Quartet’s approach is that it refuses to put Beethoven on a pedestal. This is some of the greatest quartet music ever written, true, and everything gets its full due here. But the unexaggerated songfulness of the performances, their unaffected lyricism, will come as a surprise to listeners used to hearing Beethoven’s quartets performed with all the intensity that they usually receive. The tempos tend to be fast throughout this cycle (although they never feel rushed), and there is a communicative brightness to the quartets that is often missing in performances that seem to emphasize their importance in musical history. The Borodin Quartet’s approach is especially attractive in the six Op. 18 quartets, whose generally light tone is mixed with a winning expressiveness. No. 5, in particular, is a marvel, showing Beethoven in a Mozart mood and with his folklike themes in full swing. The finale of No. 6 is worth special mention, too, for its unabashed joyfulness.

     But the players’ lyricism carries through from the earliest quartets all the way to the final ones, and that is a big surprise indeed. The cantabile elements of Op. 95 really sing, for example, and the latest quartets – Opp. 132 and 135 – here sound very modern, very symphonic, but far more directly communicative (which means far less dense and distanced) than in most performances. This is quite an untraditional approach to the late quartets, and it takes some getting used to – and well repays the time investment. There is boldness as well as the far more common quality of introspection in these late-quartet readings; and, perhaps through the players’ intimate familiarity with Shostakovich, these readings give a highly effective sense of just how far into the future late Beethoven actually looked.

     Power, focus, lyricism, songfulness, tonal beauty, and unanimity of approach – with never a sense that any player is going off in a direction even slightly different from that of the others – are the hallmarks of this excellent cycle. The one significant disappointment here lies at Chandos’ feet, not the quartet’s: the eight-CD set includes no information on the music whatsoever and only a very sketchy enclosure giving spare information on the Borodin Quartet’s history. This set deserves far better.

     Still, it is the music that matters, and the performances are as exemplary as they are (at times) unusual. This set stands not only as a wonderful 60th-anniversary marker for the players but also as a superb legacy for cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who held his position for an astonishing 62 years, retiring only in 2007, and who died in December 2008. Berlinsky was not an entirely uncontroversial figure: he was a Communist Party member who was accused of betraying other musicians to authorities (a charge he denied). What is certain, though, is that he left behind recordings of tremendous worth, including this Beethoven set – and that unlike political machinations, high-quality performances of great music will stand the test of time.

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