Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Offered for your consideration: a cycle of the Beethoven string quartets that won't relax its grip


The current Borodin Quartet, left to right: second violinist Andrei Abramenkov, violist Igor Naidin, founding cellist Valentin Berlinsky and first violinist Ruben Aharonian—"an amazing achievement"

Since we do mostly politics here at DWT, I might slip this in with reference to the fascinating political history of the Borodin Quartet—or, more accurately, the group's fascinating story in the context of Soviet (and, later, Russian) history. The first quarter-century of that story was told absorbingly by the group's brilliant original first violinist, Rostislav Dubinsky, in his memoir, Stormy Applause.

(The most startling image in the book is of that ghostlike night in 1953 when the quartet, not yet known as the Borodin, was summoned by officialdom to play publicly to mark the passing of the great composer Sergei Prokofiev—and ordered to play Tchaikovsky, even though Prokofiev wasn't crazy about Tchaikovsky—which shortly segued into a commemoration of the death of Josef Stalin, who by chilling coincidence died the same night. Prokofiev had been a target of one of Stalin's savage cultural crackdowns.)

But that would be too complicated, and also beside the immediate point. The point is that I have this stack of CDs that for weeks now have exerted such a grip, and provided such unexpected solace in a hideously stressful time for me, that I have to say something.

The Borodin Quartet celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2005—with, remarkably, one original member still in harness: cellist Valentin Berlinsky. I adored the first incarnation of the Borodin (which in fact included only two of the four founding members), loathed the second (even though the violist and cellist didn't change), and had almost no experience of this third one when curiosity made me buy a cheap copy of Vol. 5 of their recording of the complete Beethoven string quartets (on the British Chandos label).

As a group Beethoven's 16 string quartets seem to me, to put it simply, the race's greatest achievement in the realm of music. I can think of a few contenders, but they'll have to duke it out for second place, which does them no dishonor. These quartets span the second half of Beethoven's life, from roughly age 28, and offer perhaps the purest representations of his "early," "middle" and "late" periods. Most everything that it means to be human is expressed here, culminating in the unparalleled artistic introspection of the five "late" quartets—undertaken when the composer had been more or less totally deaf for more than a decade.

That first Borodin Beethoven disk I heard contains the last two quartets, Op. 132 and Op. 135—really hard pieces to make fluid sense of, and in really different ways. The astounding Op. 132 is built around an over-15-minute slow movement—a hymn of thanks ("Heiliger Dankgesang," or "Blessed Thanksgiving") for the composer's recovery from illness—that really has no parallel except perhaps the Adagio of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It's unbelievably difficult to find the core of each of the five movements of Op. 132 and then fit them together. By contrast, Op. 135, the last major work Beethoven completed, retreats to a deceptively straightforward "classical" form. You can't help wondering whether he knew this was the end for him; if he did, that makes it an even more unexpected manner of leave-taking.

The more I listened to the Borodin performances of these two pieces, the more compelling I found them, until one day my curiosity got the best of me and I swooped up the whole rest of the cycle. Now, this isn't exactly virgin territory for me. I just counted 14 complete Beethoven quartet cycles on LP and 17 on CD, which, allowing for duplication, comes to 28. (And that's not counting fractional cycles, let alone individual recordings.*)

The Borodin performances have just about mesmerized me.

I'm not saying they're "definitive," in part because I don't believe in definitive performances. I'm not even necessarily saying the Borodin's Beethoven is "the best," nor even "my favorite." I'll have to live with them for a while before venturing opinions like that. But I've found the performances almost uninterruptedly riveting, and ravishing. I'm floored by the sheer beauty and physicality of the playing, and even more by the moment-to-moment responsiveness, whether the guys are shouting or whispering, singing or groaning, soaring or despairing. I've lived with this cycle long enough to know that it's an amazing achievement.

If you're new to the music and want to hear what the fuss is about, the "middle" quartets are probably the best place to start. In the Borodin cycle, that means either Vol. 1, with Op. 59, Nos. 1 and 3 (Chandos CHAN 10178), or Vol. 2, with Op. 59, No. 2, and Op. 74 (CHAN 10191). I have a special fondness for Op. 74, known as the "Harp" Quartet for the driving, vaguely "harplike" plucked-string effects Beethoven uses, and the Borodin players do a smashing job with it. If you want to venture into the secret world of the "late" quartets, you might try Vol. 4, with the first two, Op. 127 and Op. 130 (CHAN 10292)—or of course the aforementioned Vol. 5, with Op. 132 and Op. 135 (CHAN 10304).

(Of course it seems inevitable that Chandos will issue the cycle in a reduced-price box, making suckers of those of us who bought the individual installments. For once I have no gripe, though. I'm already getting my money's worth.)

*Okay, I have fudged a tad. I've counted the New Budapest Quartet's lovely Hyperion cycle, of which I have all but the CD with Op. 130 and its original finale, the Grosse Fuge. (I don't suppose anyone has a spare copy to sell?)


At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great article.

I needed reminding about the quartets. I'll have to check out the recent.

If I had to pick "Desert Island Disks" op 131 #14 would be at the top of my list. Incomparable.


At 9:24 AM, Blogger keninny said...

Thanks for the comment. You'll get no quarrel from me about Op. 131. As a matter of fact, I just relistened to the Borodin performance of it.



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