Borodin String Quartet

Perth Concert Hall

Review: Sandra Bowdler

Two Russians sandwiching an Austrian paean to Italy comprised the menu for the Borodin Quartet’s concert in Perth this month, the final performance in their national tour with Musica Viva. The quartet offered two programs for the tour, the other comprising Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven. Without having followed them to other cities for comparative purposes, I think Perth had the better offering.  It is hard to imagine anything more effortlessly theatrical than their presentation of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 15 (Op 144), his last.

Borodin String Quartet.JPG
Borodin String Quartet. Image supplied

The Quartet is a Russian institution, established in 1945, whose membership has changed over the years but has always comprised graduates of the Moscow Conservatorium. There is thus an inherent musical sensibility shared by its members, even when, as now, their individual ages span three decades. The first violinist Ruben Aharonian is the oldest, cellist Vladimir Balshin the youngest and in between, chronologically and visually, are second violinist Sergei Lomovsky and violist Igor Naidin. One might note the elegant physical restraint manifested by Aharonian and the somewhat looser approach of Balshin, but in the actual music they are as one.

Tchaikovsky’s familiar String Quartet No 1 (Op 11) was played lyrically but with a certain astringency which avoided the sentimentality which can overtake the second movement in particular. This was taken with a light touch, with the violin solo being lyrical without a trace of syrup. The scherzo movement was impressive for its tight co-ordination, and the finale displayed a slight wistfulness and some quirkiness, finishing with nice momentum.

A somewhat unfamiliar piece of repertoire followed with Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade of 1887.  The composer, generally considered Austrian but born in what is now Slovenia, is better known for his Lieder, and for his intense personal life, culminating in an early death aged 43.  This short programmatic work depicts imagined scenes in Italy and is really rather a romp.  After a speedy opening, the piece comprises varying textures but of similar mood throughout, leaving one feeling rather like having been on a donkey ride.

After the interval, any traces of levity or relaxation were quickly dispelled. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 15 was played in an almost completely dark concert hall, with the only illumination coming from the musicians’ sconces.  The effect of this was to concentrate one’s mind on the music, although it must be said that at times the effect was not unlike a performance of Cage’s 4’ 33”, in also highlighting the other sounds in the hall – one’s neighbour’s breathing, some light snoring not far behind (obviously not everyone was equally concentrated on the music), the rustle of programs and the like.

This work, composed in a hospital bed in Moscow and anticipating Shostakovich’s own death, is a work of deep melancholy and meditation on last things in a non-religious context, but, while it ends in a literal morendo (dying away), somehow still leaves hope for a world of artistic achievement in intensity. This performance brought out the innate beauty of the first movement, and the cries which introduce and permeate the second movement were less “yip” sounding than usual, again reinforcing the musicality of the work and its overall connectedness. Similarly, it seemed that the Intermezzo movement was less spiky than it can be, and the first part of the Nocturne had a gentle lullaby effect.  The Funeral March was as sombre as might be expected, while the Epilogue work left us sad but not in total despair. The audience was left in darkness for a substantial pause, before erupting in warm applause.

The encore was the ‘farewell scene’ from  Shostakovich’s film soundtrack to The Young Guard, played in touching tribute to Mary Jo Capps who is retiring from her position of Chief Executive Officer of Musica Viva Australia.