Review: The Borodin String Quartet, Tchaikovsky, Snape Proms, August 9-10

The Borodin String Quartet who performed at The Snape Proms

The Borodin String Quartet who performed at The Snape Proms - Credit: Archant

The Borodin String Quartet, Tchaikovsky, Snape Proms, August 9-10

Tchaikovsky might be remembered for his three major ballets or the three last symphonies but not for his three string quartets. Yet although Tchaikovsky is not particularly associated with chamber music, his quartets, string sextet and piano trio contain some of his best and most characteristic writing.

In a fine example of thoughtful and inventive programming the Borodin Quartet gave two concerts on successive evenings incorporating the three string quartets and other closely related works.

The first concert opened with the composer’s earliest foray into the medium, a quartet movement written in his final year as a student. It opens with a distinctive, sombre melody which is subjected to elegant and neatly written elaboration. This was followed by the Quartet no 1 in D, enthusiastically received at its premiere and his most popular chamber work by some margin. The music flowed effortlessly and seamlessly and the warmth and intensity of the slow movement, in particular, was ravishing – Tolstoy, no less, was moved to tears by the music.

The third quartet is a rather different animal, the overall mood more uneasy and occasionally reminiscent of the fourth symphony, written at about the same time. The music of first movement’s central Allegro has a hesitant, fragmented character and the slow movement has some arresting harmonic progressions and harmonics. The finale, like the symphony has a more extrovert character and the Borodin players accurately captured all the varying colours and moods.


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The following evening began with the most widely known piece from both concerts and not by Tchaikovsky but by his contemporary Russian, Borodin. The third movement from his second string quartet is wonderful enough as it stands but it found another role as part of the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Kismet.

This was followed by a wonderful arrangement for string quartet of Tchaikovsky’s piano compilation ‘Album for the Young’ by the quartet’s founding cellist, Rostislav Dubinsky. Twenty four miniatures were played with elegance and wit and particularly effective were the French, German, Italian and Neapolitan songs – but so was everything else.

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Tchaikovsky thought highly of his second quartet but posterity has been less convinced. The opening is searching and although the succeeding moderato flows easily the material is curiously elusive and perhaps unsatisfying. The scherzo is bustling and attractive but the Andante brings more weighty matters with its echoes of the opening bars of the finale of the Pathetique Symphony. The finale is again cheerful and the composer introduces one of his big tunes, although not a particularly distinguished one, before a headlong rush to the end.

The Borodin Quartet, unchanged in name - though obviously not in personnel – since its formation in 1945, played with restraint and little outward emotion but with supreme authority and control. Everything seemed and sounded right – the music just flowed through and out of them. These were two exceptionally well-conceived and delivered concerts of some rarely played but rewarding music.

Gareth Jones

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