Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday Classics: From the Borodin Quartet to the Borodin Trio


You don't need an atlas to know that the music is Russian, and the musicians too. The Borodin Trio -- violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, cellist Yuli Turovsky, and pianist Luba Edlina -- plays the first half of the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Trio élégiaque in D minor, written in memory of Tchaikovsky. (The second half of the movement is here. The rest of the trio is also posted. By the way, if you're wondering about the geishas used for illustration, a commenter has already raised the question. I can't even propose a theory.)

by Ken

I had just about finished a post built more or less around the wry story of How the Borodin Quartet Got Its Name, designed to be a pleasant stroll down memory lane joining the Borodin Quartet clip below to the Borodin Trio clip above. As usually happens, the thing kept growing, until finally I pulled the plug. Every word of it was riveting to me, but I decided that nobody was going to care about who succeeded whom in the second-violin chair, or even how it was that the "Soviet" violinist Yaroslav Alexandrov came to replace the talented, idealistic Vladimir Rabei. So I just chopped it all out and dumped it in a file for deposit in my personal time capsule.

I've mentioned already, writing earlier this week about the group of string players from the Moscow Conservatory who eventually became the Borodin String Quartet, that Rostislav Dubinsky, the founding first violinist, seems to me one of the great musicians of the 20th century. Dubinsky remained with the quartet for nearly 30 years, until he and his wife, the excellent pianist Luba Edlina (a frequent musical collaborator with the quartet), finally unable to endure any more of the grueling rigor of officially sanctioned Soviet anti-Semitism, emigrated to the West, in 1975, settling in Bloomington, Indiana, at Indiana University's School of Music, then enlisting fellow émigré Yuli Turovsky, a cellist who had settled in Montreal, to form another world-class ensemble, the Borodin Piano Trio.

Here, in condensed form, based on the account in Dubinsky's 1989 memoir Stormy Applause: Making Music in a Worker's State is a lesson in the politics of Soviet culture, the story of --


In 1954, this quartet, which had been playing together since 1946, when the members were still conservatory students, but still didn't have a name,. In fact, it had only half of its original personnnel: Dubinsky and the half-Jewish cellist Valentin Berlinksy. On the advice of worldly wise advisers, who advised them that a predominantly Jewish quartet had absolutely zero prospects with a Soviet culture ministry obsessed with promoting "Soviet" culture, the remaining members replace first the departing Jewish second violinist Rabei and then the violist Rudolf Barshai with "Soviet" artists, Yaroslav Alexandrov and Dmitri Shebalin, respectively.

Even so, they still had no prospect of the official support they would need for decent domestic domestic bookings and, even more important, for the possibility of foreign tours, the only way they could earn enough to support themselves as a string quartet. They couldn't even get approval for a name, which required all but impossible-to-obtain government clearance.

I remembered that it was from the venerable and politically well-connected Beethoven Quartet that the quartet got the crucial advice as to how to wangle a name for themselves, but until I replaced my missing copy of the Dubinsky book this week, I had forgotten the circumstances under which that advice was given, which turn out to be less altruistic than one might assume. (I had forgotten as well that it was Shirinsky who first suggested the name "Borodin" to them.)

Dubinsky, as he tells the story of the Borodin Quartet, was habitually reluctant to perform the obeisances to the Soviet regime that everyone in the know kept assuring him were obligatory in establishing a career, stuff like attending Communist Party functions (both Alexandrov and Berlinsky were Party members) and kissing up to Party cultural commissars and musical favorites like the Beethoven Quartet members (who by the way were not Party members; however, their lineage, which went back to the immediate post-Russian Revolution period, seems to have been accepted as a pretty good substitute).

For once, though, Dubinsky acted "sensibly," going along when Berlinsky correctly interpreted a broad hint from Vasily Shirinsky, the Beethoven's second violinist, and offered to play the string quartet Shirinsky mentioned to them that he had just written -- which "by some strange coincidence" he happened to have right there in his briefcase! When the quartet played the piece at the Composers' Union, and Berlinsky stepped up the ass-kissing by offering fulsome praise for the piece in the discussion that followed, the grateful Shirinsky invited them to a celebration at his apartment, where they were treated like the patriarch's dearest comrades.

Dubinsky recalled that the quartet's enthusiastic new patron, Shirinsky, congratulated them on having succeeded as far as they had, and told them that it was time now to take the crucial step of getting an official name -- and, he stressed, a good one. Berlinsky responded:
"But how can we get one? The road to the ministry is closed to us."

"I'll teach you how. In the spring there will be a widely celebrated Glinka jubilee. Ask Khrennikov [Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007), the powerful secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, who rose in the '60s to membership on the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party] to write a letter to the minister, and we'll ask Shostakovich to sign it. He won't refuse, and after him everyone will sign. It will be difficult for Anisimov to ignore that, especially now, after giving Tchaikovsky's name to another quartet right now."

"The Glinka Quartet?"

"Well, I don't think they will give you the name of Glinka, but any other name will do."

"Glinka is a good name," Berlinsky said dreamily.

"What's wrong, for example, with Borodin? Two beautiful quartets."

"Then let's ask for it right away," I said.

"No, no, my dear fellow, that's not the way things are done. They usually don't give what is requested."

"And how did you get the name of Beethoven? Did you ask for Bach or for God Himself?"

"We never asked anyone for anything. We just named ourselves the Beethoven Quartet from the very first concert. That was back in the twenties, right after the Revolution. The spirit of freedom, so to speak, was still flying over our heads. We couldn't think of a better name than Beethoven."

"And why is it so complicated to get a name now?"

He smiled again. "The Soviet regime is a peculiar thing," he said, squinting his eyes. "Some more vodka?"

"Definitely," Berlinsky said. "I have a toast." He waited while Shirinsky poured some for everyone and then raised his glass.

"Dear Vasily Petrovich, I would like to drink to you, to your health, and through you to the Beethoven Quartet, which we value very much and from which we are always learning."

Shirinksy smiled and replied. "Thank you, thank you, dear friends."

We drank and got up from the table. Shirinksy saw us to the door.

We did everything the way Shirinsky wanted us to. We made an appointment to see Khrennikov and laid before him the whole idea about receiving the name of Glinka in connection with the forthcoming jubilee. Khrennikov seemed relieved that we asked for nothing more and promised to support us with an appropriate letter.

It took him, however, half a year to compose his letter, and when we finally got it, the Glinka jubilee had already been announced. We brought the letter to Shirinsky, who showed it to Shostakovich and got his signature. After this, we could gather as many signatures as we wanted. We sent the letter to Anisimov, the Minister of Culture, and in another month he invited us to see him.

He was kindness itself. He said that he had personally watched our quartet develop, especially appreciated out assistance to young Soviet composers, agreed that our quartet needed a name, that the time for that had arrived, but . . . We had been waiting for this "but."

"But," he said, "Glinka is the father of all Russian music and his name is too great to limit it, so to speak, to the scale of chamber music alone. We are willing to give you a name. There are good names in the Russian musical heritage. Consider them, choose one, we have no objection," he concluded generously.

"What about the name of Borodin?" Berlinsky asked.

"I don't object."

Berlinsky looked at us and we all nodded.

"We agree," he said, as if he had just accepted a life sentence for our quartet.

"Splendid. Write an application and leave it with the secretary. I will sign it."

The story continues with the quartet members, in their delight at the outcome, joking about the minister's carefully administered slap in the faces of not just the young musicians but all the notables who had signed the letter urging acceptance of the name "Glinka." One of them jokes, "He probably thinks that by not giving us Glinka's name he saved the whole state from danger."

In their excitement they realize they need to inform their new patron Shirinsky of the day's events, and call on him at his studio at the conservatory, where he welcomes them and asks the students he was working with to leave. Berlinsky recounts the meeting with minister Anisimov, concluding, "Somehow I thought they would give us Glinka's name."

Shirinsky, squinting, says, "If you had gotten Glinka's name right now, together with the jubilee, I would've thought that I hadn't learned anything in sixty years. Well, my friends, congratulations! You got a good name and I hope it will be a successful one."

Berlinsky expresses the group's gratitude, but Shirinsky hasn't finished with his agenda. As he sees them to the door, he informs them that their performances of his string quartet at the Composers' Union have led to an offer of publication, and says, "You won't refuse to play it once again at the publisher's?"

Of course the soon-to-be Borodin Quartet wouldn't refuse!

"I thank you, and again, congratulations. We worked it out very cleverly."

Dubinsky notes in conclusion: "As we were leaving, we could hear him laughing to himself."


Shostakovich's Third Quartet, completed in 1946, begins with one of the composer's most buoyant, spirited movements (here is a decent performance) but by this Adagio, the fourth of the work's five movements, has descended to the depths of introspection if not actual despair (that's an interpretive choice, I think), which means it's just the kind of music that the Dubinsky-led Borodin Quartet could really sink its teeth into. This was one of the works that fell afoul of the Soviet regime's postwar crusade against "non-Soviet" music, which could mean music that was written in a minor key, or sounded pessimistic, or merely ended softly, and in 1948, for the second time in his life, the composer found himself staring down the barrel of a full-fledged Stalinist assault.

Although the honor of the first performances of the Shostakovich string quartets continued to be granted by the composer to his old comrades of the Beethoven Quartet (our friend Balakirev added some interesting information about this in a comment on my piece earlier this week), the Borodin Quartet played each as it became available and was eventually allowed to record the earlier ones and then the newer ones as well. When the total reached 11, Angel issued the Borodin recordings in this country as a pair of three-LP sets on the budget Seraphim label, with condensed but still useful liner notes. If you can find a good early pressing (i.e., with the orange-and-brown labels) of these sets, they're still among the most satisfying string-quartet recordings ever made.

By the time EMI got around to a British release, Shostakovich had completed and the Dubinsky-led Borodin had recorded the 12th and a 13th Quartets. (Most unexpectedly, the British EMI LPs don't sound as lustrous as good pressings of the American Seraphim one.) But then the Dubinskys left the Soviet Union. I always thought Dubinsky would form some sort of quartet to perform and record the Shostakovich 14th and 15th Quartets, but that never happened.

Meanwhile, although competing recordings piled up, there was nothing remotely in the class of the Dubinsky-led Borodin recordings -- emphatically including the complete cycle recorded by the revamped Borodin Quartet, with violinists Mikhail Kopelman and Andrei Abramenkov joining holdover violist Shebalin and cellist Berlinsky. I don't doubt that Kopelman and Abramenkov were capable fiddlers, but almost all the quartet playing of theirs I've heard is tonally and musically drab; shockingly, so is the playing of Shebalin and Berlinsky, who left behind a legacy of quartet viola and cello playing as beautiful and vibrant as any I've heard.

Shebalin would subsequently retire, but Berlinsky remained in place and seemed reborn when Ruben Aharonian joined the Borodin as first violinist in 1996. Aharonian, Abramenkov, violist Igor Naidin, and Berlinsky were responsible for the landmark recording project I described here in July 2006 as "a cycle of the Beethoven string quartets that won't relax its grip."


The Borodin Trio's Chandos recording of Rachmaninoff's two Trios élégiaques is still available.There's also an Amazon listing, accepting preorders, for a modestly priced November reissue by Brilliant Classics of the Borodin's Chandos Beethoven piano trios, unavailable for some time now.

The Dubinsky-led Borodin Quartet's recordings of the first 13 Shostakovich quartets have been reissued in Chandos's historical series,but the CD transfers, while OK, seem to me unworthy of one of the all-time great series of quartet recordings, less rich tonally than the Seraphim LPs, with almost a glaring sound. These remain great performances, though.

For me the Shostakovich quartet discography has finally been expanded and reshaped with the arrival of altogether splendid cycles recorded by two Russian quartets: a more traditional but really intensely executed one by the Shostakovich Quartet(about which I'm afraid I know very little), and the freshly imagined, boldly played and recorded Hyperion cycle by the St. Petersburg Quartet.


The updated list is here.

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At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

The Borodins have been among my favorite quartets since I first discovered their recordings at the old Four Continents Bookstore in NYC, back in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, they've been heavily disparaged by some modern critics and radio announcers who feel their sound is too lush--as though having an attractive sound automatically precludes depth of knowledge and expression. And what with the cult of the Emersons for quite a while, it was tough going among the US magazines for the Borodins.

In the last few years, however, EMI has brought out some of the mono Soviet era recordings of theirs. I've welcomed each of these. True treasures.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

We're obviously of one mind about the great years of the Borodin Quartet, B, and I"m glad to know about those EMI reissues of mono material. I might mention that Chandos, in addition to reissuing the Shostakovich Quartets Nos 1-13, has dabbled with issuing Borodin live-performance material, though they've been infuriatingly vague in their "historical" issues about recording information.

Whatever the internal divides among the foursome of the Dubinsky, Alexandrov, Shebalin, and Berlinsky, and Dubinsky's account suggests that they were considerable, and grew more troubling over the years, these guys were incredibly talented musicians capable of producing the very highest level of artistry in their work together.



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