Dvořák two Piano Quintets (both in A major) are seldom played together other than on disc. Istanbul’s Hagia Eirene Museum hosted the Borodin Quartet, celebrating their 70th glorious year in music, in partnership with Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky, to perform both quintets as part of the Istanbul Music Festival. Despite a less than perfect acoustic, they especially impressed in the more famous Op.81 Quintet.

The Borodin Quartet © Keith Saunders
The Borodin Quartet
© Keith Saunders

The Op.5 Quintet, having been abandoned by the composer, has little musical value to speak of except, perhaps, being a catalyst towards the significantly more sophisticated Op.81 composed some 15 years later when Dvořák wasn’t able to insert his new musical ideas into his youthful work while trying to revise it. The music has never made a great impression on me, even when performed by a great ensemble, possibly because the piano is given little more than an accompaniment role almost throughout.

The first movement was energetic enough, and there was never a doubt about the chemistry and the warmth of the overall sound that emanated from the Borodins. Mr Berezovsky’s piano, however, sounded muddied during the few precious moments in the coda where it is supposed to overpower the strings. This may, of course, have to do with the acoustics of the hall in which even the sternest staccato on paper echoes for many seconds. The Quintet’s pretty melodies in the Andante sostenuto, which are supposed to be duet-like fragments between the violin and the piano, ended up sounding like unaccompanied violin passages. There was an air of gentility and complete harmony during the final Allegro between the string players with the pianist taking, rather than giving, cues on timing. The Quintet's finale is upbeat and energetic but it doesn’t convey the mood of a virtuosic ending for an evening, so it was obviously an apt move on the musicians’  behalf to leave that for the second half.

It is clear from the outset of the Op.81 Quintet that this work is a considerably more erudite and cohesive work than its sibling. The pleasant cello melody that starts it off, cut by a sudden dive into minor mode, creates a deeply emotive contrast and takes the listener on an emotional and intellectual rollercoaster. The Borodin Quartet further touted this angle in the music by playing more expressively during the phrases borrowed from the Eastern European folk traditions and settling into a more brooding tone in the music’s more formal sections. Cellist Vladimir Balshin took the leading role during the first movement’s turning points and set the overall tempi and dynamic intensity. Dvořák’s use of piano in this movement is, again, almost minimal. This left Mr Berezovsky’s piano audible only during the transitions. The pianist fitted the role perfectly, however, as he timed his fingers to act as resonances of the violins. The music shifted back and forth flawlessly between the two instruments with Mr Berezovsky ending the ideas pushed forward by Mr Ahoronian without over-accentuating them. He was very thorough in staying within the limited confines the composer had written for him.

The Dumka, a Ukrainian lament, is one instance where Dvořák gives the piano a more central role, leading the brooding melody in F minor. But even here, the pianist is not given much autonomy outside the main theme. The Borodins refused to play this movement as a lament, and instead opted for a more Ballad-like tone with high dynamic contrast, a reading that resembled an arabesque with hints of a struggle between triumph and defeat. They took on an almost cheery tone for the D major interlude, playing the major key version of the melody as if it was a dance. It worked. In fact, this is what such seasoned players do best: they fruitfully bring out new meanings and values out of the most familiar materials. When the solemn notes returned, the Borodins and Mr Berezovsky quickly and seamlessly resumed their subdued and dark timbres. This time they slowed down further giving the Dumka its true elegiac character.

Following the complicated dance movement in which the musicians’ technical abilities and their sense of unity in the face of polyrhythms were put to the test (which they jubilantly passed), we arrived at the vigorous finale. It is in this movement where Dvořák demonstrates his aptitude for transforming simple folk melodies into complex layers of contrapuntal music. Mr Berezovsky defended his syncopated notes against the brisk eighths and sixteenths coming from every string player like a general, not faltering for even a split second. The five musicians on stage performed just like a well-oiled machine in the quintet’s devilishly tricky coda, galloping through myriad of notes across the board, yet still managing to start and finish every bar in perfect unison.