A year after their 70th anniversary, the Borodin Quartet continued their three-season exploration of Beethoven and Shostakovich quartets at Wigmore Hall – staple repertoire in which they have long been revered. Even though the programme travelled backwards in time, opening with Shostakovich and closing with Beethoven, the inclusion of the latter’s turbulent and ahead-of-its-time Grosse Fugue gave the programme a more cyclical feel.

Borodin Quartet © Keith Saunders
Borodin Quartet
© Keith Saunders

The Shostakovich quartet chosen to open the concert was the Fourth (in D major), written shortly after his political disgrace in 1948 and held back until after Stalin’s death in 1953 amongst other works including the First Violin Concerto and the Tenth Symphony. It is a much more varied work than its tempo markings (Allegretto, Andantino, Allegretto, Allegretto) suggest and full of the influence of Jewish folk music, a marker of this time in Shostakovich’s career as evidenced by the contemporaneous song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry.

The Borodin Quartet’s familiarity and ease in this work was both an advantage and a disadvantage. While the playing was smooth and accurate, the worked lacked a sense of spontaneity and energy, and felt more like a series of well-executed episodic passages than a cohesive musical idea. Particular highlights included the third movement Allegretto scherzo where the cello and first violin take the melodic initiative, the middle parts sustaining a quaver ostinato, and the vigorous klezmer-style dance tune of the fourth movement, a moment where the playing began to feel more characterful. The quartet eventually fades to a close, teetering on the edge of D major harmonies, finally securing them with its last breaths, setting the tone well for Beethoven’s String Quartet in D major Op.18 no.3 after the interval.

Beethoven was commissioned to write this series of string quartets, his first, by Prince Lobkowitz, who at the same approached Haydn with a request for six more. Both composers agreed but only Beethoven completed his, Haydn being exhausted by his work on The Seasons and The Creation. The new energy Beethoven injected into this form, just as Haydn, its father, retired, was immensely significant to the development of the string quartet. This work, in particular, with its shifting harmonies and inventive approach to structure seems to foreshadow Schubert.

Once again, whilst the performance had an effortless quality, it also felt slightly casual. Vladimir Balshin’s cello playing with spirited and colourful but as a whole the Quartet did not seem to be particularly enjoying playing this lively and inventive work. Consequently, whilst there was momentum there was a lack of colour. This was particularly evident during the relentless Presto bursting with rhythmic wit and counterpoint, there was a lack of conversation between the players.

The Grosse Fuge Op.133 proved to be safer territory. Described by Stravinsky as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”, it bore little relation to the work that had preceded it. The Borodins' unquestionable technical skill proved the greatest asset here, making light work of a piece that threatens to exceed the capabilities of even a modern string quartet. The unison passages produced an incredibly consistent and precise sound, and the double fugues were played with clarity and sense. The exhilarating coda that emerges from the dense counterpoint could have been more impactful, although only a 15-minute work there are elements of fugue, sonata form, a slow movement, scherzo and finale and consequently the final bars should feel more monumental than they did.

It is hard to fault the accuracy or skill of the quartet’s playing but there was an overlying sense of routine to the evening that took away from the historical significance and brilliance of the works played. Being old hands at this repertoire seems to have taken away some of the awe and sense of discovery in this pieces, and perhaps when these three seasons are over it might be time to try something new. 

***11