Wigmore Mondays – Barry Douglas & Borodin Quartet – Shostakovich: Piano Quintet

Barry Douglas (piano, above), Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)] (below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 14 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

For the 2019-20 season many of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore Hall have taken on a playlist appearance. This all-Russian programme was no exception, with Tchaikovsky miniatures acting as a prelude to Shostakovich’s most successful chamber work, the Piano Quintet.

Tchaikovsky‘s The Seasons are a lovely set of miniatures for piano, characterising each month of the year rather than the four seasons. Barry Douglas, who has recently recorded the cycle, clearly holds the collection dear, and his accounts of March (the Song of the Lark) and October’s Autumn song were haunting and thoughtful by turn.

The Borodin Quartet followed with Tchaikovsky’s famous Andante cantabile for strings. The previous week they had given it in context, the second movement of four in the composer’s String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, where it is most effective. Here the silvery, muted textures were lovely, and the central section evoked a light dance, but the work’s placement felt constricted knowing the main act was still to come.

All that was emphatically put to bed by a storming performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, as authentic an account as you could wish to hear. The first incarnation of the Borodin Quartet worked closely with the composer on many of his string quartets, and they performed the quintet with the composer on several occasions. The first-hand experience of their predecessors has not diluted the intensity of the experience in transition, and this was a searing account of one of 20th century chamber music’s most powerful utterances.

The Prelude (20:36) and Fugue (25:27) dovetailed beautifully, the former section imposing and powerfully wrought, the latter gathering a mood of grim resilience as the elements of its theme became ever more closely interwoven. This carried through to the outburst that is the Scherzo (35:28). Here Douglas came to the fore, striking the octaves in the upper right hand with shrill clarity, the quartet responding in kind as the textures veered towards the orchestral.

A graceful Intermezzo (39:12) was deeply poignant, the combination of bittersweet violin and simple plucked cello affecting from the outset. Emotions bubbled just under the surface throughout this movement, threatening to break loose at any moment. As the music slipped effortlessly into the finale (45:17) it shifted up a gear, with time for another big theme (46:35) before navigating to the calmer waters of the coda, where resolution was finally found in spite of the slightly ghostly string tone.

This was a tremendous performance, with every ounce of feeling communicated to the audience, occasionally at the expense of tuning in the upper violin area but with an unwavering intensity. The audience loved the repeat of the Scherzo as an encore.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Tchaikovsky The Seasons Op.37a: March (2:00), October (4:31) (Barry Douglas solo)
String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, Second movement (Andante cantabile) (11:12) (Borodin Quartet)
Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 (1940) (20:36) (Barry Douglas, Borodin Quartet)

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, containing recorded versions by the artists. The Borodin Quartet released Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet with pianist Alexei Volodin for Decca in 2018 – and here it is prefaced by one of the group’s several recorded versions of the Andante cantabile. Barry Douglas’s Tchaikovsky is part of an album of the complete cycle of The Seasons:

Another Russian chamber music powerhouse can be heard below. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, written in memory of pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, is a deeply expressive piece full of pain and resilience. Here it is from Trio Wanderer:

Shostakovich was not done with his piano-based chamber music, adding a substantial Second Piano Trio four years later. You can hear it below with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and cellist Mats Lidström – part of a very impressive all-Shostakovich disc:

In concert – Borodin Quartet: Tchaikovsky & Arensky at the Wigmore Hall

Borodin Quartet [(Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)]

Wigmore Hall
Wednesday 9 October

Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 (1871)
Arensky String Quartet no.2 in A minor Op.35 (1894)
Tchaikovsky arr. Dubinsky Album for the Young Op.39 (1878)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Simon van Boxtel

The Borodin String Quartet have an unparalleled history in performing Russian string quartets, and the first of their three date mini-residency at the Wigmore Hall found them sitting firmly on home ground.

It could be said that the history of the Russian string quartet begins with Tchaikovsky, whose String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 began the programme. This contains his first ‘hit’, the second movement Andante cantabile which even now is a firm favourite in its string orchestra arrangement. Heard in proper context here, the understated emotion of Tchaikovsky’s solemn notes made an even stronger impact, especially when performed with due reverence.

The Borodin Quartet belong firmly to the old school of quartet playing, sitting still and straight-faced as they play, but as the evening unwound so too did their apparently stern countenance. The straight approach worked with this piece however, as an elegant first movement introduction gained weight and resolve, and the Scherzo third movement showed a rustic, outdoor quality. The final movement, capping a piece that doffs its cap to Mozart and Mendelssohn, was aware of the influence of both composers but showed off the uniquely Russian edge.

Anton Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 in A minor was written in homage to the recently departed Tchaikovsky in 1894. Replacing one of the violins with a second cello, the still underappreciated Arensky darkened the colours of the quartet, which has a distinctive if rather lopsided three movement structure. The outer movements take time for religious contemplation, while the inner and most substantial movement of the three spends time with developing a theme written by Tchaikovsky.

This Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky is itself more popular in a string orchestra arrangement, but as with the older composer’s Andante cantabile it is more effective in context, a great example of how to keep the potentially stale variations format fresh and inventive. This was a superb performance, the Borodin Quartet – through necessity reverting to two violins rather than two cellos – gravely intoning the main subject of the outer movements where time seemed to stand still. The Variations were brilliantly characterised and flew off the page, the ensemble speaking as one – and the final pages emphatically threw off the sadness of the chant-influenced passages, looking forward to more optimistic times ahead.

For the second half the Borodin Quartet turned to their one-time leader Rostislav Dubinsky, and his arrangement for them of Tchaikovsky’s piano cycle Album for the Young. Comprising 24 short pieces for children, it is packed full of dances, character pieces and portraits. Initially the thought was that this would be overindulgent and too whimsical, but as the set unfolded so did Tchaikovsky’s charm and Dubinsky’s invention.

Here was the composer who would eventually write so skilfully for younger ears in The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, channelled through the medium of an arranger who was able to send up some of the pieces with clever pizzicato or harmonics. This was where the Borodin Quartet let themselves go more, sending up The Toy Soldiers’ March beautifully, then indulging in colourful accounts of the French, German, Italian and Neapolitan Songs. The scurrying Baba Yaga was a treat, while the last two numbers, The Organ-Grinder’s Song and At Church were curiously ghostly, sending the young audience to what might have been a troubled sleep.

No such troubles here though, as we finished with an encore from Borodin himself, the Serenata alla Spagnola. It was led off decisively by the pizzicato of cellist Vladimir Balshin before its main tune, given affectionately by viola player Igor Naidin. It was a fitting way to end a charming and moving concert.

Further listening

You can hear recorded versions of the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including the Borodin Quartet‘s recording of the Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 and Rostislav Dubinsky‘s own Borodin Trio in the Album for the Young:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 28: Tadaaki Otaka conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Rachmaninov & Huw Watkins

Prom 28: Iurii Samoilov (baritone), Natalya Romaniw (soprano, below), Oleg Dolgov (tenor), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Philharmonia Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (above)

Takemitsu Twill by Twilight (1988)
Huw Watkins The Moon (2018-19) (BBC commission: world premiere)
Rachmaninov The Bells (1912-13)
Borodin Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances (1869-87)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 8 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Tadaaki Otaka) Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Given his commission brief, to write a choral piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, Huw Watkins must have been tempted to set Neil Armstrong’s immortal ‘one giant leap’ quote to music. Instead however he opted to ‘capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth’. In doing so he set four intriguing texts pre-dating the first manned visit to our original satellite – two from Percy Bysshe Shelley, and one each from Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen.

The four were stitched together like phases of the moon in a continuously running 20 minutes, with plenty of opportunity for the orchestra to have their say in between. Watkins has an interesting musical language, always rooted in tonality but using evocative colours and harmonies hinted at in works for chorus and orchestra by Holst, Vaughan Williams or even Hugh Wood.

The Moon had a very satisfactory flow to it, and was passionately delivered by the 130-strong BBC National Chorus of Wales, who clearly enjoyed the experience. Given its length it makes a tricky piece to programme or to appraise on one listen, but it is to be hoped in this anniversary year we get more chances to acquaint ourselves with a composer who writes in a very human voice, and found the ‘definite and bright’ description of Larkin’s verse. That may sound like an obvious statement to make, but surprisingly few composers form a connection with their audience as pronounced as Watkins did here, and even less make the words as clear as he did.

He was of course helped by his ‘home’ orchestra, conducted by a returning prodigal in Conductor Laureate Tadaaki Otaka. Making his first visit to the Proms since 2015. Otaka opened with a piece by his dear friend Toru Takemitsu. Twill By Twilight, in memory of Morton Feldman, was in clear thrall to the Debussy of Nocturnes, creating a dreamy atmosphere. The piece is typical of Takemitsu’s compositions in its dealing with orchestral colour, melody and harmony on equal standing, and it runs slowly if inevitably. In this performance it panned out beautifully, the expansive orchestral sound guided by Otaka’s steady yet relaxed direction.

Otaka has a special place for the works of Rachmaninov, having recorded the symphonies and piano concertos for Nimbus back in the early 1990s. Yet the Russian composer’s choral symphony The Bells was absent from this project, and it was great to hear it in such full-bodied form here. The BBC National Chorus of Wales were boosted still further by the 100-strong Philharmonia Chorus, making a terrific bank of sound that carried all before it – and yet which, thanks to Otaka’s careful balancing, was complemented by the orchestra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud Alarm Bells, the third movement, was suitably terrifying especially at the end, Otaka driving at a quick tempo, and this balanced out the relative joy felt in the first movement, Silver Sleigh Bells, where tenor Oleg Dolgov was a fulsome presence. Soprano Natalya Romaniw sang beautifully in Mellow Wedding Bells, the second movement, her voice effortlessly soaring up to a top B flat without a hint of effort, while baritone Iurii Samoilov offered a darker hue for the depths of Mournful Iron Bells, whose late shift from darkness to light was beautifully done. Rachmaninov’s choral epic has been well served by the Proms in recent years – I remember a terrific outing directed by Vladimir Jurowski – and this was another fine advocacy.

Finishing with Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances was a masterstroke, sending the audience home with several tunes in the locker that simply refused to leave for the rest of the evening! What a gifted melodist Borodin was, and how frustrating that because of his day job – a chemist – he did not leave more for us to enjoy. What he did leave still gives much pleasure, however, and the Polovtsian Dances benefited from such a big choir at their disposal.

The women floated the tune of the Young Girls’ Dance beautifully, while the men – while not quite hitting the passion of Russian voices in this music – were still fulsome and bold. Several orchestral solos stood out, not least from clarinetist Robert Plane, while Otaka’s pacing and linking of the sections was ideal. At 71 the conductor still looks in fine fettle, and his ‘sleep’ gesture at the end was borne more of mischief than genuine fatigue. It seems he, like the rest of us, was fired anew by the passionate Russian music of the concert’s second half.