Notes From Hairenik
Last night I was privileged to attend a stellar concert performed by the legendary Borodin String Quartet, celebrating its 65th year, in Yerevan's Opera House. It ranks as one of the greatest live classical performances I have ever heard.

The Borodin Quartet opened their first set with Alexander Borodin's dreamy Nocturne, the third movement from his lovely String Quartet No. 2. Then they switched gears to perform the demanding, yet haunting String Quartet No. 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich, who was arguably the best classical composer the Soviet Union ever produced and is certainly on the top 10 list of the greatest 20th century musical legends of the international stage. The second part of the program was dedicated to Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 2, which is a longer, beautiful work I had not previously heard. So it was an all-Russian bill for Yerevan's audience.

The members of the Borodin Quartet are Ruben Aharonian, first violin, Andrei Abramenkov, second violin, Igor Naidin, viola and Vladimir Balshin, cello.

I own several recordings by the Borodin Quartet, all legendary performances, which include their namesake's gorgeous String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 and all 15 of Shostakovich's quartets. So when I saw the billboard last week in front of the Opera House advertising they were about to arrive in Armenia, I was compelled, even obliged to go see them; nothing was about to keep me away.

On my Borodin Quartet recording of the 8th, a reissued Melodya disc from 1978, only Abramenkov from the current lineup is found, who is the second, second violinist the Quartet has had, joining in 1974 replacing Yaroslav Alexandrov. No one from the original lineup is left in the group. The quartet, founded by students of the Moscow Conservatory, started performing as early as 1944 but changed its name to the Borodin Quartet 11 years later. Cellist Valentin Berlinsky, one of the original members of the group (in reality his predecessor was the great Mstislav Rostropovich), retired in 2007 and died the following year. Aharonian, who was born in Riga, joined in 1996, as did Naidin. Balshin came on board in 2007, replacing Berlinsky.

The eighth string quartet is considered by some to be Shostakovich's greatest. It was his most personal work and that is obvious at first hearing. With my limited knowledge of classical music, I don't know of another composition for string quartet that possesses the emotional range this work presents to the listener. At the onset the notes set a mysterious, yet poignant mood, and then for the second movement, the allegro molto, it explodes in a thunderous, rapid rush of sound. The third movement is a bit more playful before the largo of the fourth moves in, with its knock-knock-knock theme, as if to represent someone, a stranger, rapping on the front door. At the end, the theme of the first movement returns, to close the work with an intense fade out (nearly ruined incidentally by premature applause).

From my position I was able to see just how the music was created, in other words which instrument took the lead at any one time. For instance I was surprised to observe the cello coming to the fore to play a part that sounds as if it is actually for violin when you hear the recording. The four captured all the nuances and compelling climatic moments that so moved me on the original recording I have. It was if I was hearing the recording performed on stage exactly as taped, that's how tight this quartet is.

On the Borodin Quartet's web site I ran into this text, which explains a lot:
Igor Naidin, who joined as viola player after Dmitri Shebalin retired in 1996, says: “Shostakovich watched over the Borodin Quartet’s development through its first generations. You could say he gave his blessing to the quartet’s playing of his music. Of course, the members who played his quartets to him before they were heard in public remembered all his remarks about interpretation, and the way of playing that met with his approval. Mr Berlinsky was the guardian of this tradition--we have received the ‘information’ from him, and as the next generation we will look after it."
I was joking with my wife that the Borodin Quartet is the Rolling Stones of string quartets. The group is enduring, uninhibitedly so, and with age keeps getting better. The Aram Khachaturian Hall was packed for the occasion, and I would guess that nearly half the audience was under the age of 25. In the upper balcony we were sitting mostly with students studying at the Yerevan Conservatory, many of who brought along their instruments, as if to join in spiritual communion with the musicians on stage.

This concert was held "under the patronage of the President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan," who regrettably for him did not attend as he missed an amazing, probably once-in-a-lifetime performance--he was represented by his wife, Rita. The last time the quartet performed in Yerevan was six years ago--it must have been around the time I was just getting prepared to move here, otherwise I would have attended for certain. There's no telling when I will have another chance to see the magnificent Borodin Quartet again. It was indeed a musical experience of a lifetime.

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