Review By Phil Gold
CD Number: Chandos 10064(4)
The Borodins have given us three Shostakovich cycles. This is the first cycle, recorded between 1967 and 1971 for the Russian Melodiya label. Shostakovich then proceeded to write two more quartets, included in the second and more famous Borodin Quartet cycle, released on the EMI label in the 80's, but by this time leader Rostislav Dubinsky had left for America, his place taken by Mikhail Kopelman. The third cycle, in sumptuous sound, appeared in the 90's on the Virgin label, with further changes to the lineup.
The first cycle is now available on CD for the first time, appearing on the Chandos label with freshly remastered sound. You would be hard pressed to ferret out this information from the liner notes, which are all but silent on the provenance of the recordings. All they tell us is that these are the original members of the Borodin Quartet. This information is misleading. The Borodin Quartet was originally known as the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet. The name change came after ten years in 1955. By this time the original violist, Rudolph Barshai, had left replaced by Dmitri Shebalin, who would stay from 1952 until 1995. Second violinist Yaroslav Alexandrov played with the quartet from 1953 to 1974, and he succeeded Nina Barshai, who herself followed Vladimir Rabei. Valentin Berlinsky was the quartet's first cellist and still occupies that chair today. So while Dubinsky, Alexandrov, Shebalin and Berlinsky were the first to be called the Borodin Quartet, only Dubinsky and Berlinsky were actually founding members.
In all other ways Chandos has done us proud. This is a mid-price release on just four discs, each running over 75 minutes. The sound is stereo, but the image is quite compact, especially compared to the spacious perspective of the third cycle. This smaller sound stage suits the music very well.
Three cycles by one quartet? Well, Brendel has given us three cycles of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and I'm not complaining. There is no doubt in my mind these works are absolute masterpieces, comprising perhaps the most important quartet cycle since Beethoven and Schubert. These are not difficult works like the Bartok quartets, although the quartets become increasingly astringent and austere towards the end of Shostakovich's life, and surrealism makes the occasional appearance. The Borodins have given us fresh insight in each cycle, and continue their high standards to this day. The Beethoven Quartet premiered most of Shostakovich's quartets but the Borodins were often the first to play them outside Russia, and worked closely with the composer to prepare their performances.
Just a few months ago I was privileged to hear the Borodin Quartet, in works by Borodin, Beethoven and Shostakovich in the superb acoustics of the Weston Hall in Toronto. Valentin Berlinsky was celebrating his eightieth year and the Borodins their sixtieth anniversary. Time has taken its toll on Berlinsky's vitality and strength, but not on his musical imagination or his powerful connection to the composer. This was truly a magical evening. The younger members of the Quartet, superbly led by Ruben Aharonian, have absorbed by osmosis the spirit of Shostakovich and, together with the veteran Berlinsky, produced a performance of the famous Opus 110 in C minor to bring tears to the eyes and the crowd to its feet.
Wonderful as that performance was, it cannot compare with the intensity and focus of the recordings from the original cycle. Indeed, I have never heard any string quartet played with the passion, power, understanding or technique the Borodins achieve here. This is simply the best performance of Opus 110 I have ever heard, and if you have not heard the Borodins in this work, you will be quite unprepared for an achievement so profound and so perfectly realized. The rest of this set maintains the same high standards of performance, although each quartet marks a different point in the composer's development, and not all reach the sublime heights of his greatest compositions. Matters of interpretation simply disappear. The Borodins own this music, their Russian soul inhabits every bar. As to technique and ensemble, this is beyond anything any other quartet can offer. All the technique serves perfectly to covey the terror, power, irony, anguish and regret the composer intended.
If you already own the second or third Borodin cycle, should you buy this one? I did, and I don't regret it for a minute. If you own one of the other fine cycle recordings, such as the Fitzwilliam Quartet or the Emerson Quartet, then I know you love this music, and you shouldn't hesitate for a second to experience this most authentic realization. And if you don't know this music, here is the perfect introduction.