The eminent Borodin Quartet brought a programme of Shostakovich and Beethoven with them to Wigmore Hall – two composers they are very closely associated with. Indeed their relationship with Shostakovich is justly famous and they have done much to gain recognition for that composer’s quartets by performing and recording the works when others were ignoring them. During the composer’s lifetime, and in the years afterwards, these fifteen quartets weren’t as respected as Bartók's, with only the Eighth finding its way into the repertoire. More recently, the tables have been turned, with Bartók performed less but more Shostakovich entering into the concert hall.

Borodin Quartet © Andy Staples
Borodin Quartet
© Andy Staples

The two quartets that the Borodins brought with them, the F sharp minor no. 7 and the F minor no. 11, are among those that now receive a more regular airing. Particularly so the compact Seventh which doesn’t waste a note in conveying its quizzical, but passionate message. The performance hit just the right note of potentially erupting restraint, with secure technique and blended timbres that made every gesture ring true.

The Eleventh is a more mysterious beast. Like the Beethoven that rounded off the programme, it is the first of what could be classed as Shostakovich's late quartets. Long stretches of thinly scored, emotionally stunted music alternate with violently sharp-edged passages and – with seven movements occupying just over a quarter of an hour – it has a disjointed and unsettling effect on the listener. But in this sure-footed performance the impact of the piece was a strangely powerful experience. The first violin and the cello were particularly telling in the long solo lines and the overall impression of the performance was of a very deep understanding of the music, from four players with their own identity playing as one.

Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 12 in E flat major carried on the quizzical atmosphere after the interval, in this most baffling and yet attractive of the late quartets. The autumnal mellowness of the first movement sounded here like a pre-echo of Brahms. The same rounded tone worked wonders in the Adagio, the beating heart of the work. A wonderful sense of line in the long melodies allowed each of the variations to flow into and develop from each other, making it a satisfyingly moving experience. The Scherzo was lively and buoyant rhythmically, with some very accurate scurrying in the trio section. Only in the Allegro finale did they miss the point to some degree, with a performance that that lacked a wild, dangerous late Beethoven edge, in favour of a safer more generic liveliness.

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