Orchestras often vaunt their long, distinguished past but it’s much rarer to have a string quartet that is over seventy years old. The Borodin String Quartet, formed in 1945 in Moscow, is one of the very few chamber ensembles that can claim such unbroken lineage. Known affectionately as the “Four Grand Masters” the current incumbents, Ruben Aharonian (First violin), Sergei Lomovsky (Second violin), Igor Naidin (viola) and Vladmir Balshin (cello) are all accomplished soloists in their own right. Joining them tonight was Northern Ireland pianist Barry Douglas whose career was kick-started by winning first prize at the 1986 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

The Borodin String Quartet © Andy Staples
The Borodin String Quartet
© Andy Staples

This was a chiaroscuro type of programme with the light-filled Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet no. 1 in D major oozing charm before the darkly intense Brahms works, the Op.76 Intermezzos and the Piano Quintet in F minor filled the rest of the concert. There was an interesting dynamic in mixing up a chamber music concert with solo piano pieces while the second half piano quintet satisfyingly joined up all the forces together.

The famed golden sound of the Borodin String Quartet charmed from the opening double-stops of the Tchaikovsky. If I closed my eyes, it was impossible to tell if the sound was coming from one super instrument or four, so unified was their musical voice. The weaving melodies of the first movement were effortlessly passed from instrument to instrument while the uniform tone was rich and dark – romantic but eschewing any excesses.

The silky lyricism of the Andante cantabile was coaxingly played while the forlorn melody of the second subject was played almost without expression over a gentle ostinato pizzicato. Yet despite their glorious honey-toned musicianship, the playing lacked some heartfelt passion at times. The third movement’s sforzandi had bite but the overall effect hardly reached a simmer. The finale had much more gusto with the semiquavers played with no little vim.

Electing to play only five of the eight pieces from Op.76, intensity and passion characterised Douglas’s approach to these miniature masterpieces of Brahms. There was menace in the opening of the Capriccio no. 1 while the upper melody sung out mournfully above the threatening quavers. Douglas highlighted the contrast in No. 2 with its capricious changes of keys between major and minor. Mercurial and coquettish, he deftly captured the essence of this piece. Skipping over numbers 3 and 4 (presumably for timing purposes) the fifth piece exploded with passion. There was bite to the sforzando while the upper line was carefully shaped and shaded despite the virtuosic complexities of the accompaniment.

The still, searching beauty of Intermezzo no. 7 gave away to the volcanic eruptions of the final Capriccio in C major. Douglas allowed the passion to smoulder before the exhilarating climax.

The climax came in the second half of the recital with Brahms’ great Piano Quintet, a work which went through a complex and lengthy gestation period. Perhaps it was the presence of Douglas, or maybe it was the piece, but it was clear that there was much more power to the Borodin Quartet’s playing. Striking a good balance between piano and strings, they imbued the opening with great passion. The transition into the major key was meltingly done while the muscular moments were satisfyingly handled. Balshin poured his heart and soul into his cello part, delivering his lines with a searing intensity.

There was warmth to the Andante melody in the second movement while the Scherzo buzzed with energy, its off-beat accents adding to the sense of urgency. Rejoicing in the driving rhythm, one and all ratcheted up the excitement to a frenzied degree. The threads of music hovered mournfully in the air in the opening of the final movement as it built up in intensity in a succession of different keys. The fiendishly tricky moments for the piano were expertly executed by Douglas while the overall effect was of captivating music-making.