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: