The Borodin String Quartet has been playing serious, heavyweight programmes since 1945, making it the quartet world’s most senior ensemble, and giving it a global reputation for high technical standards and musicianship. Back in the immediate post-war period the group developed a close relationship with Shostakovich, which stimulated their particular affinity with the Russian repertoire that continues to this day. That affinity was clear for all to hear at their recent appointment at Turner Sims in Southampton, where they played two of Tchaikovsky’s early works for string quartet.

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

Tchaikovsky’s Quartet movement in B flat is a wholesome and interesting piece based on a melody scribbled down from labourers working in his sister’s garden. That melody, in true Tchaikovskian style, arrived fully formed and didn‘t require too much development. I’m not sure whether to credit the composer or the gardeners for the charm of the tune, but certainly it was played out by the Borodin Quartet with absolute precision and near-perfect balance. The second subject came with much more drama; the quartet adeptly dropping gaping silences, and contrasting these with the full sound of viola and cello racing through murky bass lines. Bookending this excitement is the austere, hymn-like Adagio misterioso, which in this rendering reminded me of the very saddest late Beethoven quartet movements. The Borodin Quartet played through the passages without even a hint of vibrato, and with a warmth and richness of tone that I haven’t heard anywhere else. That unspeakable timbre pervaded the rest of this concert, and in particular the Tchaikovsky item that followed.

In contrast to the programme’s opening item, syncopation, cross-melodies and counterpoint are all at large in Tchaikovsky’s Quartet no. 1 in D: these are the qualities that drive the piece onwards. Yet when the Borodin Quartet played the Scherzo and especially the Moderato, they did so with the amazing tonal qualities of the preceding piece. I’m sure that this effect can only be created with a total mastery of the notes, and a group mentality which leans heavily towards togetherness. When you consider that this isn’t a group who nod, raise eyebrows or otherwise conduct one another, their togetherness is all the more impressive. Throughout the Andante cantabile, each member of the Borodin Quartet carried their portion of the tune with restraint and modesty. The middle parts could be heard unfussily developing an idea, and on the occasion that the outer parts were called on for decoration, there was no indulgence to be found. While this suited both Tchaikovsky items perfectly, I’m not sure it worked so well after the interval.

It is often noted that Brahms threw away about 20 versions of his Quartet no. 1 in C minor before he settled on the form we now know. We can’t infer much from this bit of history, apart from to say that the piece was born with complications. It’s a fairly dense piece with lots of information to take in and not a huge amount of melodic landmarks to hang onto. Some passages require a good deal of heft if the four instruments are to sound like a single unit and the Borodin Quartet duly gave this Brahms piece the weight that it needed. However, I feel that in order to signpost the less obvious themes and under-repeated motifs, the quartet could have offered more dynamism, virtuosity and perhaps indulged us all a little. At times the Allegretto became slightly shapeless, only to be snapped back to life by the movement’s memorably sour refrain.

The Borodin Quartet may have a lauded history, a noble philosophy of continuity and a revered approach to the classics, but I was most impressed by something much more simple: their tone. Throughout this concert I was continually shocked at how their notes sounded, to the point where I could garner enjoyment from simple held chords. I may have struggled a little during the Brahms but overall I’ll remember the concert for being a powerful display of musicianship.

****1