The State Borodin Quartet comprising:
Ruben Agaronian (first violin)
Sergei Lomovsky (second violin)
Igor Naidin (viola)
Vladimir Balshin (cello)
String Quartet in E Flat Major, D. 87
String Quartet in C Minor, D. 703
String Quartet in G Major, D. 887
The State Borodin Quartet is a unique phenomenon, not just in the history of Russian music but of the entire world. This legendary ensemble has won a reputation as a leader in international quartet music, and the Quartet’s phenomenally extensive creativity was first commented upon by the Guinness Book of Records as far back as 1995.
The Borodin Quartet recently marked sixty-five years since its formation.
“Four equals. Each of them different. Each of them great. A theatre of four performers,” an epithet afforded to the quartet by Austria’s Volksstimme newspaper, could grace a review of any concert given by the “Borodinians” no matter which musicians are under the spotlight, be they from the distant or recent past or even the present day.
The history of this outstanding ensemble dates back to 1945 when, in the chamber music class of Professor Mikhail Terian at the Moscow Conservatoire, a string quartet emerged comprising Rostislav Dubinsky (first violin), Vladimir Rabei (second violin), Yuri Nikolaevich (viola) and Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), the latter soon to be succeeded by Valentin Berlinsky.
Unlike other student ensembles, the musicians of what was to become the Borodin Quartet felt like an integral orchestra even while still students at the Conservatoire and they resolved to dedicate themselves to chamber music. In 1946 the quartet, then still a student ensemble, became affiliated with the Moscow Philharmonic (the first concert took place on 10). Soon Vladimir Rabei and Yuri Nikolaevich were succeeded by Nina Barshai and Rudolf Barshai.
From its very first years, the quartet stunned audiences with the sheer variety of its repertoire. Alongside classical quartets the musicians essentially immediately began to include works by contemporary Soviet composers in their programmes. In just five seasons they performed roughly one hundred such pieces of music. Composers whose works the quartet’s musicians performed included Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Dmitry Kabalevsky, Mieczysław Weinberg, Boris Tchaikovsky, Herman Galynin, Yuri Levitin, Nikolai Peiko, Vissarion Shebalin, Edison Denisov and Alfred Schnittke among others. The quartet was the ensemble chosen to premiere many works, which were also dedicated to the orchestra. The ensemble’s programmes witnessed the birth of Soviet chamber music.
In 1955, following a dazzling performance of works by Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin, the ensemble was named in his honour – the Borodin Quartet – and today it is famed throughout the world as a synonym for outstanding performing skills. The ensemble’s second decade (1955–1965) proved to be a time of impetuous creative growth for the musicians. By this time the second violinist was now Yaroslav Alexandrov and the violist Dmitry Shebalin, son of the composer Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin. The new ensemble (Rostislav Dubinsky, Yaroslav Alexandrov, Dmitry Shebalin and Valentin Berlinsky) carried on for over twenty years until the mid 1970s. Dmitry Vissarionovich Shebalin performed with the quartet for forty-three years in addition to being a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire where he trained myriad renowned chamber music performers.
In 1955 the Borodin Quartet travelled abroad for the first time. Over the course of ten years the ensemble appeared in twenty countries including Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. All of the ensembles’ concerts met with great critical acclaim. At the time, the reviewer of Australia’s Nation newspaper wrote that “The Borodin Quartet is not four separate instruments but rather one with sixteen strings.” People began to speak of the “Borodinians” as one of the finest ensembles in the world.
In 1950 the quartet began to collaborate with Sviatoslav Richter, and this collaboration was to last more than forty years. This outstanding musician performed eighty-three concerts with the ensemble in addition to recording fourteen works including quintets by Dvořák, Shostakovich, Franck, Schumann, Brahms, Reger and Copeland. These concerts and recordings are to be counted among the finest achievements in world art.
In 1975 the quartet’s “first violinist” Rostislav Dubinsky left the USSR, having served as the ensemble’s artistic inspiration for thirty years since its very inception. It is with his name that the emergence of the “Borodinians’” unique musical style is inextricably linked. His departure was, quite naturally, a deep blow for the ensemble. It was at roughly at the same time that violinist Yaroslav Alexandrov was compelled to make his exit from the quartet due to ill health.
At the time, many said that the Borodin Quartet was destined to vanish. The ensemble itself, however, thought otherwise. And following a brief interval, the revival of tours abroad by the quartet demonstrated that it had succeeded in retaining its brilliant performing qualities. Young musician Mikhail Kopelman, then already the leader of the Moscow Philharmonic, was appointed the orchestra’s first violinist. Second violinist Yaroslav Alexandrov was succeeded by Andrei Abramenkov who for many years had played in the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai. The new musicians of the “Borodinians” re-recorded Borodin’s quartets and this recording was hailed in Great Britain as “Best Recording of the Year.”
Of special note in the history of the ensemble is its collaboration with Dmitry Shostakovich which lasted more than thirty years. The “Borodinians” performed his quartets from the very outset of their careers to the composer’s dying days, always remaining in close contact with him. Shostakovich’s last public appearance as a pianist (at a festival of contemporary music commemorating Shostakovich’s work in Gorky on 23 February 1964) saw a performance of his own Piano Quintet together with the musicians of the Borodin Quartet.
The “Borodinians” have elevated Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets to the same august standing as such great quartet music as the sixteen quartets by Beethoven. It is thanks to them that Shostakovich’s quartets have been performed thousands of times across the globe.
Following Shostakovich’s death in 1975, work on the composer’s music did not cease. “The Borodin Quartet has Shostakovich in its blood, so to speak…” wrote Donald Rosenberg in a Cleveland newspaper. The vast cycle All of Shostakovich’s Quartets has been performed by the musicians (beginning in 1980) dozens of times in Moscow as well as in towns throughout Russia and internationally, taking the ensemble to London, Madrid, Venice, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Cologne, Frank am Main, Vienna, Lisbon, Zurich, Helsinki, Paris and New York. In 1981 to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the birth of Shostakovich, the “Borodinians” ran a festival of chamber music, hitherto unprecedented in terms of scale. The 1986 recording of all fifteen of Shostakovich’s quartets by the “Borodinians” to mark eighty years since the composer’s birth was awarded the Ministry of Culture of the USSR’s Golden Disc. Not a single chamber quartet had received this award prior to the Borodin Quartet. This recording was subsequently reissued by the world’s leading recording companies, among them EMI and BMG. In 1987 on the initiative of the ensemble’s oldest member Valentin Berlinsky a Dmitry Shostakovich String Quartet Competition was organised – the first international string quartet competition in the history of the country that has provided a vital starting point for many music ensembles that are highly acclaimed today.
The early 1990s once again saw a gradual revival and rejuvenation of the ensemble. In 1996 Ruben Aharonian was appointed first violinist in the quartet and Dmitry Shebalin was succeeded by Igor Naidin as violist. In 2007 Vladimir Balshin replaced Valentin Berlinsky and, in 2011, Andrei Abramenkov was succeeded by Sergei Lomovsky.
Highlights of the quartet’s career include over six thousand concerts in the USSR, Russia, countries throughout Europe, Asia, America and Australia attended by almost a million people, hundreds of recordings that have received prestigious awards and appearances at numerous music festivals in Russia and abroad (December Evenings of Sviatoslav Richter, Russian Winter, The Art of the Quartet and festivals in cities including Salzburg, Edinburgh, Tours, Versailles, Zagreb, Aldeburgh and London among others).
The “Borodinians” have been joined by such acclaimed soloists of past and present as Konstantin Igumnov, Heinrich Neuhaus, Alexander Goldenweiser, Maria Yudina, Lev Oborin, Yakov Zak, Emil Gilels, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Bella Davidovich, Eliso Virsaladze, Naum Shtarkman, Nikolai Petrov, Mikhail Pletnev, Vladimir Krainev, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Lyudmila Berlinskaya, Viktor Tretiakov, Yuri Bashmet, Natalia Gutman, Christoph Eschenbach, András Schiff, Truls Mørk, Michael Collins, Mario Brunello, Sabine Meyer, Oleg Maisenberg and Alexei Lyubimov.
Over the years the ensemble has performed quartets and various pieces by dozens of composers ranging from Luigi Boccherini and Joseph Haydn to the music of Alfred Schnittke and other late 20th century composers.
The quartet’s discs have been released by companies in Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the USA. The orchestra has recorded more than one hundred works.
The quartet retains its outstanding professional level, signature style, unique sound and the unsurpassed art of performing ensemble music. Changes have altered neither the intense nature of the “Borodinians’” concert appearances nor the scale of their performances.
One of the quartet’s most significant achievements was a recording of all of Beethoven’s quartets on Great Britain’s Chandos label (2005), released to commemorate the ensemble’s sixtieth anniversary.
Much of the praise for the succession and maintenance of traditions within the quartet is owed to one of its founders – Valentin Alexandrovich Berlinsky (1925–2008). Valentin Berlinsky said that when the ensemble was founded “the idea was for the quartet to exist for all time.” Valentin Berlinsky himself played with the Borodin Quartet for sixty-two years. He devoted much time and energy to teaching, education and organisational work; he was a professor at the Gnesins’ Russian Academy of Music, organiser and Chairman of the Jury of the Shostakovich Quartet Competition, Artistic Director of the Andrei Sakharov International Art Festival in Nizhny Novgorod and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Performing Arts Foundation.
The ensemble’s anniversary year in 2010 saw performances in such prestigious international venues as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Cité de la musique in Paris, the Philharmonie in Cologne, Wigmore Hall in London, the Lincoln Center in New York and major halls in Australia and New Zealand. The Telegraph listed the ensemble’s London concert in its “Top 10 Classical Music Events of 2010.”
That year the quartet also travelled across the entire globe for the third time in its history.
The ensemble continues to collaborate with various recording companies. For its anniversary year Great Britain’s Onyx released a disc of works by Russian composers including Borodin, Stravinsky and Myaskovsky, while 2011 saw the release of a series of six Russian Quartets by Haydn that received rave reviews by The Strad and Gramophone magazines.
This year ICA Classics also released a DVD of a live broadcast of a concert in Paris featuring quartets by Schubert and Brahms.
The State Borodin Quartet is a recipient of the Mikhail Glinka State Prize of the RSFSR (1968), the State Prize of the USSR (1986), the Mayor of Moscow Prize (1998) and the State Prize of Russia (2001).