Review: Borodin String Quartet

The Borodin String Quartet from Russia is performing three concerts for Chamber Music NZ in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland.

Justly regarded as one of the finest quartets performing today, these impeccable musicians played music by Haydn, Shostakovich, Wolf and Tchaikovsky, the latter marking the 125th anniversary of the composer’s death.

The Borodin Quartet is well-known for the sweet beauty of their sound, immediately in evidence in Haydn’s String Quartet in B Minor, from the Opus 33 set known as the “Russian” quartets.

Their playing is always under-stated and unemphatic and this was a beautifully balanced performance.

In 2014 the Wellington audience held its breath during the Borodin’s chilling, steely performance of Shostakovich’s short 11th Quartet.

This time it was the Russian master’s 9th, a seamless journey from the foreboding of the opening movement through an achingly sad Adagio, the rapid syncopations of the Allegretto and another Adagio to the long final Allegro where all the themes and powerful emotions of the work return. Shostakovich’s uneasy, dangerous relationship with the Russian authorities is always a back-story in his music, and that riveting drama was always present.

But the subtle virtuosity of the musicians was also thrilling, as in the extraordinary bow control of the lively third movement. 

After the interval, effortless perfection in Wolf’s beguiling Italian Serenade provided an apt bridge to another big Russian work, Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, op. 11.

Compared to Shostakovich’s desolate passion, this folk-tune saturated music was pure melodious pleasure.

The Quartet’s restraint gave us a flowing account with beautifully judged flexibility, revealing both the music’s variety and the blended homogeneity of the ensemble.

A cheering audience demanded an encore, and the concert ended gently with the short chorale, Morning Prayer, from Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album Opus 39.

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