A View From the Platform: Borodin Quartet and Shostakovich

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Monday, October 14, 2013 - 13:48
Ahead of their performance of three Shostakovich string quartets on 20 October, Tim Woodall hears from the Borodin Quartet about their close relationship with the composer and his music. Some tickets still available. http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/borodin-quartet-72746 A View from the Platform It is not an exaggeration to say that the Borodin Quartet contributed to the creation of the defining chamber music repertoire of the twentieth century. The direct link between the quartet and the music of Dmitri Shostakovich was broken just six years ago when cellist Valentin Berlinsky retired in 2007, after an astonishing 62 years with the group. While current first violinist Ruben Aharonian did meet Shostakovich, it was Berlinsky, a founder member of the quartet in 1945, who knew Shostakovich well, working with the composer right from the first string quartet. Over 30 years, Berlinsky and his colleagues witnessed the birth of the quartets first-hand. Each was rehearsed by the Borodin Quartet, with interpretative advice sought by the composer. ‘He had a special attitude towards strings quartets,’ Berlinsky said. ‘They were an outlet for his emotions.’

The personal connection may have gone but its legacy lives on with the Borodin Quartet in its current form. ‘The bond between Shostakovich and the Borodin Quartet is most precious,’ says violist Igor Naidin. ‘Though none of the current members personally played his string quartets in front of him, we keep all the knowledge we inherited from elder, previous members of the group. We are always, always guided while playing these masterpieces by the knowledge we have in our minds and hearts.’ Understandably for such a historic ensemble, continuity is important to the quartet. As Naidin points out, all of the quartet’s members, right from its formation, have studied at the Moscow Conservatory. This consistency is part of the reason the quartet has kept its distinctive style and sound. ‘Since the quartet’s inception, the players have always worked hard to focus on the quality of the sound and on its beauty,’ says Naidin.

The Borodin Quartet frequently performs complete cycles of the 15 Shostakovich quartets, which Naidin describes as ‘a unique series of masterpieces’ that developed the genre, ‘extending and breaking the borders of classical string quartet form.’ However familiar the players are with the cycle, performing Shostakovich is always a challenge, he says: ‘His music is not just beautiful. It also requires a lot of skills, emotional tension and personal involvement in order to bring his unique, internal world before audiences, who also have to be prepared for a special journey.’ For this concert in The Rest Is Noise festival, the group presents three of Shostakovich’s quartets, including undoubtedly the most famous of the 15, the Eighth Quartet. The uncertainty over whether the work’s message is personal or political – or indeed both – has added to its myth. ‘The latest research shows that the Eighth Quartet was a personal dedication, a “requiem to himself”,’ says Naidin. By peppering the Eighth Quartet with his personal musical motif, Shostakovich was ‘releasing his most intimate thoughts and feelings, and thus he opened the hearts of all the listeners around the world.’