The State Borodin Quartet comprising:
Ruben Aharonian (first violin)
Sergei Lomovsky (second violin)
Igor Naidin (viola)
Vladimir Balshin (cello)
String Quartet No 2 in D Major
String Quartet No 8 in C Minor, Op. 110
The State Borodin Quartet
String Quartet No 2 in F Major, Op. 22
is a unique phenomenon in the history of music, not just in Russia but internationally as well. This legendary ensemble has earned a reputation as a leader in world quartet music, and the quartet’s phenomenal longevity was noted as far back as 1995 in the Guinness Book of Records
This season, the State Borodin Quartet celebrates seventy years since its foundation.
“Before us we have not four performers, but rather one instrument of incredible virtuosity” – this appraisal from Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
could adorn any review of any concert by the Borodin Quartet, whatever its members, be it the remote or recent past or today.
The history of this outstanding ensemble dates back to 1945, when at the Moscow Conservatoire (chamber ensemble class of Professor Mikhail Terian) a string quartet was formed including Rostislav Dubinsky (first violin), Vladimir Rabei (second violin), Yuri Nikolaevsky (viola) and Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), who was soon succeeded by Valentin Berlinsky.
Unlike other student ensembles, the future musicians of the Borodin Quartet had – even during their time at the conservatoire – felt themselves to be a single group and they resolved to dedicate themselves to quartet music. In 1946 the quartet, then still a student ensemble, became affiliated with the Moscow Philharmonic (their first concert took place on 10 October). Soon Vladimir Rabei and Yuri Nikolaevsky were succeeded by Nina Barshai and Rudolf Barshai.
From the very first years of its existence, the quartet amazed audiences with the sheer scope of its repertoire. Alongside classical quartet opuses, the musicians almost immediately began to include works by contemporary Soviet composers in their programmes. In just their first five seasons they performed some hundred such works. Composers whose works the quartet’s musicians performed included Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Dmitry Kabalevsky, Mieczysław Weinberg, Boris Tchaikovsky, German Galynin, Yuri Levitin, Nikolai Peiko, Vissarion Shebalin, Edison Denisov and Alfred Schnittke among others. Many works have been performed for the first time by the quartet and have been dedicated to it. The ensemble’s programmes tell the story of the birth of Soviet chamber music.
In 1955 thanks to its outstanding performances of works by Alexander Borodin the ensemble received its name – the State Borodin Quartet, today a synonym for lofty performance skills. The ensemble’s second decade (1955–1965) was to prove a time of impetuous artistic growth. By then, the ensemble’s second violinist was Yaroslav Alexandrov and its violist was Dmitry Shebalin – the son of composer Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin. The new team (Rostislav Dubinsky, Yaroslav Alexandrov, Dmitry Shebalin and Valentin Berlinsky) existed for over twenty years, right into the mid-1970s. Dmitry Shebalin performed with the quartet for forty-three years, in tandem also being a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire and teaching many acclaimed chamber musicians.
In 1995 the Borodin Quartet performed abroad for the first time. In the course of ten years, the ensemble performed in twenty countries, among them Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, France, Finland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. All of the musicians’ concerts have met with tremendous success. People began to speak of the Borodin Quartet as one of the finest such ensembles in the world.
In 1950 the quartet began a collaboration with Sviatoslav Richter that was to last more than forty years. Together with the acclaimed musician, the ensemble performed eighty-three concerts in addition to performing and recording fourteen works including quintets by Dvořák, Shostakovich, Franck, Schumann, Brahms, Reger and Copeland. These concerts and recordings rank among the greatest achievements in international performance.
In 1975 Rostislav Dubinsky left the USSR; he had been the ensemble’s first violinist who, for the first thirty years, had provided its artistic inspiration. It is with his name that the emergence of the musical “signature” of the Borodin Quartet may be connected. His departure was naturally a blow for the ensemble. At roughly the same time, violinist Yaroslav Alexandrov was forced to leave the quartet due to illness.
At the time, many said that the Borodin Quartet would cease to exist. But the ensemble did survive. And its renaissance following a brief break in tours abroad showed that the quartet had succeeded in retaining its outstanding artistic qualities. The ensemble’s new first violinist was to be the young musician Mikhail Kopelman, who at the time was already a leader with the Moscow Philharmonic. Yaroslav Alexandrov was succeeded as second violinist by Andrei Abramenkov, who for many years prior to that had performed with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai. The reformed Borodin Quartet recorded quartets by Borodin, and this recording was feted in Great Britain as the best recording of the year.
One particular page in the history book of the ensemble is connected with its artistic collaboration with Dmitry Shostakovich – a collaboration that lasted more than thirty years. The Borodin Quartet performed his quartets from the very start of its existence to the last day of the composer’s life, always in close contact with Shostakovich himself. Shostakovich’s final public appearance as a pianist (at a festival of contemporary music dedicated to him in Gorki on 23 February 1964) was a performance of his own Piano Quintet together with the musicians of the Borodin Quartet.
The Borodin Quartet has placed Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets on the same level as other such quartet masterpieces as Beethoven’s sixteen quartets. Thanks to them, Shostakovich’s quartets have been performed thousands of times around the world.
Following Shostakovich’s death in 1975, work on the composer’s music did not cease. “Shostakovich, as they say, runs in the blood of the Borodin Quartet musicians,” wrote Donald Rosenberg, a reviewer for a Cleveland newspaper. The immense cycle All Shostakovich Quartets
has been performed by the musicians (starting in 1980) dozens of times in Moscow, as well as in other cities throughout Russia and abroad – London, Madrid, Venice, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Vienna, Lisbon, Zurich, Helsinki, Paris and New York. A 1986 recording of all fifteen of Shostakovich’s quartets by the Borodin Quartet commemorating eighty years since the composer’s birth was also rereleased by EMI and BMG, two of the world’s great recording companies.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the ensemble was once again slowly revived and rejuvenated. In 1996 Ruben Agaronian was appointed first violinist, while Dmitry Shebalin was succeeded by Igor Naidin as violist. In 2007 Valentin Berlinsky was succeeded by Vladimir Balshin in the quartet. In 2011 Andrei Abramenkov was succeeded by Sergei Lomovsky.
The quartet has performed some seven thousand concerts in the USSR, Russia and dozens of countries throughout Europe, Asia, America and Australasia that have been attended by audiences of millions, produced recordings that have received highly prestigious awards and participated in festivals in Russia and abroad (December Evenings of Sviatoslav Richter
and festivals in cities including Salzburg, Edinburgh, Paris, Istanbul, Bonn, Aldeburgh, London and Tokyo).
The Borodin Quartet has performed with stars of past and present, among them 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 Tretyakov, Yuri Bashmet, Natalia Gutman, Christoph Eschenbach, András Schiff, Menahem Pressler, Truls Mørk, Michael Collins, Mario Brunello, Sabine Meyer, Oleg Maisenberg, Alexei Lyubimov, Nikolai Lugansky, Boris Berezovsky and Alexei Volodin.
The quartet works with recording companies in Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the USA. The ensemble’s discography includes over one hundred titles. The musicians retain their lofty professional status and their “collective signature”. No changes have affected the intensiveness of the ensemble’s concert life or the level of performance of the musicians of the Borodin Quartet.
One highlight of the ensemble’s career came with a recording of all of Beethoven’s quartets together with Chandos.
Great credit in the continuation and preservation of the Borodin Quartet’s traditions is due to one of its founders – Valentin Berlinsky (1925–2008). Valentin Berlinsky said that when he formed the ensemble the “idea was for the quartet to exist on a permanent basis.” The musician himself performed with the Borodin Quartet for sixty-two years. He dedicated much of his efforts to educational and social activities; he was a Professor of the Russian Gnessins’ Academy of Music, organiser and Chair of the jury of the Shostakovich Quartet Competition and Artistic Director of the International Sakharov Arts Festival in Nizhny-Novgorod.
The ensemble is commemorating its seventieth anniversary with performances at such major international concert venues as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the Cologne Philharmonic, Wigmore Hall in London, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, the Moscow Conservatoire, the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre and the Tonhalle in Zurich. The ensemble also appears at festivals in Schleswig-Holstein, Rheingau, Istanbul and Bergen.
The State Borodin Quartet is a recipient of the 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.
Alexander Borodin composed his Second Quartet in the summer of 1881 in Zhitovo – the Tula estate of Nikolai Nikolaevich Lodyzhensky (a member of Balakirev’s circle). The quartet is dedicated to the composer’s wife Yekaterina Sergeyevna Borodina and was written to commemorate twenty years since they fell in love in Heidelberg. Recollections of those days were dear to both their entire lives. The quartet is a deeply personal work, closely connected with other pieces by Borodin; in the first movement there are intonations of Konchakovna’s passionate cavatina, and the principal theme of the finale closely resembles the theme of Igor and Yaroslavna, separated for so long in the opera (like the Borodins themselves throughout their married life). The scherzo develops into a romantic waltz. The famous slow section comes with a duet of the cello (an instrument which Borodin played) and the violin.
Borodin’s masterpiece was far from immediately recognised and appreciated by fellow musicians. Rimsky-Korsakov, furiously studying the sheet music before the public premiere which came in January 1882, pronounced his own verdict: “Borodin has written his second quartet this summer – it’s sweet, but God knows what else it is.” Several years would pass before the quartet won its well-deserved acclaim.
Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet enjoys a popularity rare for a work that is so academic in terms of genre. The reason is the programme, which Shostakovich exhaustively expounded in a letter to Isaak Glikman, telling his friend of his arrival in July 1960 at a resort in Saxon Switzerland near Dresden: “I watched materials of the film Five Days, Five Nights directed by Lev Arnshtam. I settled in very well to create the right artistic surroundings. The artistic conditions justified themselves: I composed my Eighth Quartet there. However much I tried to execute my tasks in rough for the cinematic film, I have as yet been unable to do so. And instead of that I wrote an ideologically empty quartet that no-one needed. I considered that if I ever die then it is extremely unlikely anyone would write a work dedicated to my memory. And so I decided to write one myself.”
Shostakovich wrote this musical “auto-epitaph” literally a few days after he had been unable to avoid joining the CPSU (although he had refused to join the party several times, it having destroyed the lives of so many people). In the music, the programme is expressed just as clearly. The quartet opens with a monogram there (D-Es-C-H), which runs through all five parts, in places even becoming importunate. The composer’s self-portrait is completed using themes from his First, Eighth and Tenth Symphonies, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, his Piano Trio and Cello Concerto. The themes come with “hints” of Wagner’s Trauermarsch and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony as well as the revolutionary songTormented by Grievous Bondage. Officially, the quartet is dedicated to the memory of victims of fascism and war. There are different versions of the Eighth Quartet for various performing ensembles. Rudolf Barshai’s orchestration was given the title Chamber Symphony.
In the 1870s Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed three dazzling string quartets quickly and with ease, almost as if by magic, and he never again returned to the genre. He worked on Quartet No 2 in F Major (Op. 22) from December 1873 to January 1874. This is a work by a charming and very happy man, the music of the quartet almost glowing from within. In this most classical of genres, Tchaikovsky wrote with such sincerity and enthusiasm, something only Beethoven before him had succeeded in doing in his late quartets. At the same time, it is a very refined work and here it suffices to think of the plastique theme of the scherzo.
The mystery of the Second Quartet lies in the inscrutable blending of the traditions of Beethoven and Mozart with the Russian character. In the first section the lyrical effusions become ... a dance, and this is done with such elegance that the point of transition is imperceptible. The dreamy second theme, Andante, is taken from Beethoven’s Eighteenth Piano Sonata, but at the close of this section a perspicacious episode suddenly emerges, written absolutely in the Russian style with an “open” soul.
The quartet was composed using classical forms, though it is the form least of all that draws one’s attention. It is only when, in the middle of the final polonaise (a forerunner of the famous polonaise in Eugene Onegin), the fugato suddenly begins that we realise to our surprise to just what extent all the classical canons have been observed.