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:

Wigmore Mondays – Michael Collins and the Borodin String Quartet play Mozart

borodin-quartet

Michael Collins (clarinet) and the Borodin String Quartet (above) (Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 25 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07866f4

Available until 24 May

What’s the music?

Tchaikovsky, arr. Rostislav Dubinsky – Album d’enfants, Op.39 (1878) (29 minutes)

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581 (28 minutes) (1789)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below, including a recording of Rostislav Dubinsky’s arrangement:

About the music

Tchaikovsky’s Album d’enfants follows in the footsteps of Schumann’s collection for piano of the same name, yet this set of 24 piano miniatures is designed to be played by children as well. It includes dances, children’s pieces, portraits and flights of fancy, with most pieces little more than a minute and a half in length.

In it the composer allows his inner child to run free, in the same manner it was to do later in life in the ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. This arrangement for string quartet was made by the Borodin String Quartet’s previous first violinist, Rostislav Dubinsky.

michael-collins

Clarinetist Michael Collins

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is probably the best known work for the combination of clarinet and string quartet, and it was written late in his life – 1789 – for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. It is written in A major, the same key the composer was to use for his final orchestral work, the Clarinet Concerto, and is notable for its sunny mood.

Performance verdict

This was a charming concert, though the Borodin String Quartet did take quite a serious approach to even the most infantile of Tchaikovsky’s character pieces. They were effective in their arrangements, and the quartet played with charm, delicacy and poise.

The Clarinet Quintet enjoyed a similar performance – serious but enjoying the work’s abundance of melody, although the decision not to employ the repeats Mozart marks in the first two movements changed its dimensions rather. Michael Collins was a good match, allowing himself a freer rein at times in the solo part, and while the quartet and clarinettist did not exchange much in the way of glances during the performance, theirs was an account notable for its unity. When played as beautifully as it was here, the Clarinet Quintet is as vivid an evocation of spring as you could wish to hear!

What should I listen out for?

Tchaikovsky

1:20 Morning prayer a charming, contented slow piece

2:42 A Winter morning – quite a blustery one by the sounds of it! Quicker interplay between the instruments

3:32 The Hobby-Horse – a quick portrait of a horse that seems to be difficult to capture!

4:17 Little Mother – soft and reassuring music that speaks of safety and warmth

5:55 March of the Wooden Soldiers – the title sounds like something out of The Nutracker, and the tune is similar. A crisp march.

6:49 The Sick Doll – the mutes are on for this fragile, mournful portrait, which sinks despondently into its minor key.

8:20 The Doll’s Funeral – the doll has now died, and this movement marks its passing with plaintive pizzicato.

9:49 The New Doll – the funeral has passed and a relatively quick and brief waltz, the face of the new doll lifts the mood from the doldrums.

10:29 Old French Song – A solemn piece, but with elements of warmth too. A beautifully scored movement, this has a lovely unison between first violin and cello.

11:48 German Song – this cheery dance has a jagged rhythm and opens out into quite a knees-up! The viola (I think) can be heard tapping its strings rhythmically half way through.

13:00 Italian Song – this has a lovely warmth, and the full part writing allows us to hear a lovely, rich quartet sound, with the cello plucking underneath.

14:15 Neapolitan Song – here the peasant is playing a form of concertina – and it sounds a lot of fun from the cello plucking and the sprightly tunes from the quartet!

15:24 Waltz – this has a lovely, simple tune for first violin, with the other instruments mostly off the beat.

16:52 Mazurka – a grand introduction from the cello with multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once), taken over by the violin

18:10 Polka – a charming, brief dance, lively and with some imaginative violin harmonics at the top end.

19:21 Russian Song – a solemn intonation from each instrument in turn, taking on the form of a canon but then settling to a relatively calm finish

20:21 The Peasant Plays His Ziehharmonika­ – the instrument effectively portrayed here is the concertina, the quartet playing as one.

21:05 Popular Song (Kamarainskaya) – this is brilliantly sent up by the violin especially, with squeaky high harmonicas like an old creaking chest of drawers

22:28 Sweet Dreams – a sentimental tune where Tchaikovsky allows some indulgence

24:43 The Old Nurse’s Tale The scratchy strings here give a lovely impression of old age, and the tale itself is lightly humorous.

25:40 The Witch: Baba-Yaga Even more scratchy is the old witch, played with the bows right close to the finger board for a more scary sound.

26:22 Song of the Lark The lark makes a beautiful sound here, thanks to the first violin over warm string accompaniment.

27:52 The Organ-Grinder Sings – over the held chords of the organ the first violin sings in a rather small voice.

29:02 In Church – a solemn finish to the cycle, given by the quartet in very subdued and rather eerie tones.

Mozart

27:07 – the first movement (marked Allegro) begins with the strings, a restful series of chords that are actually the first theme, a support for when the clarinet rises through the texture. Then, a minute later, the clarinet enjoys a tune that rises through the texture, floating gracefully. At 30:06 Mozart develops his ideas, the main theme coming back at 31:18.

34:01 – the second movement is marked Larghetto. In the key of D major, it is notable for its restraint and beautiful, spaced out melody heard on the clarinet at the outset. The melody returns at 37:50 in an even softer guise, peaceful and rather moving.

40:44 – a stately Minuet for the third movement, led by the clarinet but egged on by the strings. Mozart includes two contrasting ‘Trio’ sections – the first in the key of A minor (42:01). The Minuet section is repeated at 43:59 before a second trio at 44:40, another graceful dance led by the clarinet. The Minuet returns for the final time at 47:00.

47:47 – the final movement consists of a perky theme from the strings, embellished by the clarinet – and then five variations on it. The first (48:36) gives the clarinet a free reign, the next (49:30) hands over the baton to the first violin in an energetic section. The third (50:25) moves into the minor key and a brief shadow falls over the music, before 51:36, where the clarinet joyously lets itself go in the fourth variation. Then the music pauses, almost in an operatic sense, with a complete freedom of tempo as the clarinet leads the movement towards a close – where the perky theme reappears (54:36).

Further listening

Having heard the Borodin Quartet in sympathetic versions of Tchaikovsky, it makes perfect sense to expand that to the composer’s three published string quartets, which are relatively rare in concert these days. They are extremely enjoyable works. The First is notable for its slow movement, the Andante cantabile, which Tchaikovsky arranged for string orchestra, while the Third is a particularly poignant piece of work. As a bonus the album below includes the Souvenir de Florence, the composer’s String Sextet: