Members of the Borodin Quartet made a welcome visit to Melbourne on September 27 for the first of two concerts under the auspices of Musica Viva Australia, as part of its International Concert Season. Beethoven and Shostakovich also feature in the second program to be presented as part of the Melbourne Festival, so it was interesting to observe how the Quartet approached these two stalwarts of the chamber music genre.
The full program at the Recital Centre comprised:
String Quartet in F major, Op.18, No.1
String Quartet No.11 in F minor, Op.122
String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D810 Death and the Maiden
As one might expect from an ensemble of this quality the players were in perfect sync from the outset for the opening movement of the Beethoven, Allegro con brio. Already leader Ruben Aharonian’s violin assumed something of a soloist’s role, although the first theme was repeated by the other instruments in turn with development of the idea adding harmonic richness to a pattern of unison, then echo. If the first violin was the “soloist”, the other players contributed rhythm and delicacy to the sound. A series of triplets was a detail that was particularly well realised.
The first violin’s solo role carried into the second movement but was soon ceded to (or perhaps, shared with) the second violin and later, viola. But all four instruments were important to the almost symphonic structure of the music and the interplay of the four never overpowered the melodic thread. The marking translates as “slow, with feeling, passionate” – and that it what we heard. By contrast the short Scherzo was very fast, but delicate and sprightly. There was interest in the rhythm and phrasing, so exact that the Borodin Quartet showed its merit – exactly what one hopes for, given the many hours that professional ensembles spend playing together.
The final Allegro returned to the idea of the first violin articulating the theme followed by the other three, although this was at such a pace that it was at times hard to keep track of individual parts. That hardly mattered. This was a performance to enjoy, from the dance of its opening through its bright, polyphonic development (the cello particularly sonorous) to an emphatic ending – and loud applause.
Shostakovich may not be so easily appreciated as Beethoven, and not just because audiences are generally less familiar with the Russian’s work. The great value of musicians like the Borodin Quartet is they way they draw us into a less familiar soundscape and reveal its layers in all their complexity, which is suggested by the composer’s own divisions of the work, its seven parts a range of styles and tempo.
Like the Beethoven heard earlier, the work at first focuses on the first violin, with the other instruments then joining in. Marked “a little faster than a walking pace” the music is nevertheless very intense – and to my mind, unmistakably Russian. Minor intervals convey a sense of unease while also having an introspective beauty. Contrasts come in many forms: an exploratory duet; the cello keeping a ground bass effect below the upper strings; sudden staccato.
A burst of energy is discordant and, while not easy to listen to, is striking for its balance and power. The Etude has the first violin playing very fast while the other three instruments appear to be a separate trio playing beneath. The second violin leads the Scherzo with the cello and viola combining as an accompaniment. The music is perfect for this quartet of such equalness.
Although the program notes made reference to Shostakovich’s ill-health and thoughts of death, they also talked of his “compositional craftsmanship” with themes articulated from the outset by violin and cello. My notes described these two instruments near the end as “elegiac” (not noticing the movement was indeed marked Elegy!). This is not to discount the importance of the second violin and viola, as it was the combined effort of all four musicians that had such a powerful effect on the audience. If Beethoven left us cheering, Shostakovich took our breath away.
The Borodin Quartet presents another concert in Melbourne, with Tchaikovsky as the third item. Although there are different works by Beethoven and Shostakovich, both are represented and the concert is highly recommended.
PROGRAM TWO − Tuesday 14 October
Part of Melbourne Festival
String Quartet in G major, Op.18, No.2
String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110
String Quartet No.2 in F major, Op.22