Borodin Quartet and the art of staying alive

On the eve of their 70th anniversary, Russia’s Borodin Quartet, one of the great modern ensembles, is heading to Adelaide.

On the eve of their 70th anniversary, Russia’s Borodin Quartet, one of the great modern ensembles, is heading to Adelaide. News of yet another split in the Australian String Quartet must have many shaking their heads in dismay. It will be three times in as many years that half its members have left the group, and this on top of the shock replacement of the entire ensemble in 2006, one must wonder if it is a terminally ill ensemble. But while we’re left to ponder what kind of “artistic differences” amongst its players led the ASQ board to relieve Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache from their duties at the end of this year, along will come another quartet in October that represents the very model of stability. The Borodin Quartet is indisputably one of the great ensembles of modern times, and, depending on how one counts these things, they’re either the longest continuously operating string quartet or the second oldest, after the fellow-Russian Komitas Quartet. Where the Borodins have their claim on history is that ever since they began in 1945, they have only replaced players one at a time – no splits, disputes with boards, or sackings in their case. Continuity is their hallmark. All of Borodin Quartet’s players have trained at the Moscow Conservatorium, and it was only in 2007 that that they lost their last founding member, cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who retired after an astonishing 62 years. Like any group, Borodin Quartet has had its ups and downs. Surviving the tumultuous politics of Stalinist Russia and the break-up of the Soviet Union has been the biggest hurdle. That becomes evident when one talks to the quartet’s newest member, 45-year-old viola player Igor Naidin. Naidon took over from Dmitri Shebalin in 1996, who had been with the group from 1953 and was one of his teachers; and joining the quartet was the most important event of his musical life, he says. “My upbringing literally was with the Borodin Quartet. Shebalin was not well and wanted to stop playing. Already a decision had been made in advance. The quartet had played with different violists and was looking for the next violist. For a number of years I was a student of the Borodin Quartet, so they knew me. I was invited to play in a number of rehearsals. “It was special because it’s a group in which we change one by one. We hope to make it work, to keep unified, plus to keep the traditions of the quartet. We have never stopped; we have kept working despite all the changes.” On the subject of politics they’ve had to play a deft hand. From 1955 the Soviet regime permitted the Borodin Quartet to tour beyond the Iron Curtain, but under strict controls in which a ‘special ideological committee’ determined repertoire and venues. Founding first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky defected in 1976, throwing the quartet into chaos at the height of its acclamation in the West. According to the group’s official history, Berlinsky – who admitted to being a member of the Communist Party – insisted the group cease performing for two years “until they had recaptured the sound of the original group”. Nearly 70 years after it started, the Borodins remain tight lipped about politics. Shostakovich, whom they frequently perform – and whose String Quartet No 11 in F minor we hear them play in Adelaide – is “Russian and Soviet together”, says Naidin. “It’s impossible to separate the two.” But meanwhile has the Borodin Quartet maintained a consistent, definable sound through its turbulent history? “I would leave that to music critics,” Naidin answers. “It is impossible to make a decision on that as a player. Of course, we are each different and the sound of the group changes over time. However, because the Russian string instrument school was well known through the 20th century, and our teachers were all at the Moscow Conservatorium, maybe we are different belonging to this base, of sound making and performing. The sound we try to use is the whole spectrum of range of the string quartet. Shostakovich and Beethoven use the quartet to express a sound that is symphonic: big and wide in sound. I don’t know if it is truly Russian or not!” What happens when the group has disagreements on matters of interpretation? “We are members of one team,” explains Naidin. “Definitely we are all different. But not that much different. We are like in a family. We must have very strong motivation. When one player says ‘Let’s do it this way’, the other party must listen carefully. We try it, and often the original person will say ‘Okay, it doesn’t work’. Each brings their own, which is inevitable, while at the same time recognising this is a team. We must think together.” On their upcoming Musica Viva concert, Naidin offers pointers to what to listen for. “Beethoven and Shostakovich sound magnificent together,” he says. “Listen carefully to two different geniuses. The young Beethoven in Op. 18 No 1 is already mature. It is juxtaposed by a late in the Shostakovich, which although gloomy will nourish you by its genius. ‘Death and the Maiden’ in the second half, also in a minor key, shows Schubert’s genius at melody. All the pieces are masterpieces. Our job is to present them accordingly.” Borodin Quartet Musica Viva Thursday, October 9 Adelaide Town Hall  

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