CLASSICAL Borodin Quartet, Wigmore Hall

Nicholas Williams salutes the veteran Russians' adventurous programming
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The Independent Culture
The Borodin Quartet holds a distinguished place in music's notional Almanach de Gotha. Formed in 1945 by fellow students from the Moscow Conservatoire, it's been playing with the same line-up since 1976 - quite an achievement, even in these tranquil late-20th-century days of vigorous longevity. But what do we listen for in an ensemble of such mellowed experience?

With a certain Schadenfreude, it's possible to find joy in apparent lapses from perfection. True, in the first of their Wigmore Hall series, on Thursday 25 January, first violinist Mikhail Kopelman's tuning occasionally wavered at the peak of his rushing scale-passages in the last movement of Schumann's Third Quartet. But in a work that notably fails only in its finale, these were transient blemishes. Besides, the very presence of this otherwise beautiful piece drew attention to the adventurous context of the whole.

Though living composers were excluded from all three recitals, the Borodins ranged widely beyond the usual repertoire of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The Schumann was preceded by Tchaikovsky's Quartet No 2, a rarity to British audiences, but here realised with intuitive warmth and stylistic command. Schubert's C minor Quartettsatz sounded lighter beneath these veteran fingers than when heard in this hall after Christmas from an ensemble half their age. Did the Schubert seem a strange piece to round off so much weightiness? Not with Tchaikovsky's Andante cantabile as the encore, its simplicity of utterance placed so as to wind down the evening with a quiet envoi.

But the ensemble's self-evident attraction is its groomed and balanced tonal range. The elfin second theme of Schumann's opening Allegro, for example, received a lighter-than-air presentation. And in the next movement, a string of extended miniatures that the composer might have called Novelleten, each change of texture was perfectly captured within a binding pulse that remained the arbiter of long-term goals.

There was more of the same quality, if less consistently realised, at the Borodins' final concert on Tuesday. Capricious tempi in Shostakovich's Quartet No 3 were presumably authentic, since he personally supervised their reading of the complete cycle. Sparse textures responded to generous vibrato and portamenti. At the close of the passacaglia-like slow movement, violist Dmitri Shebalin and cellist Valentin Berlinsky pondered the theme like scholars disputing an ancient text.

The symphonic breadth of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" challenges quartets of all complexions: the sense of strain in the Borodins' reading is the essential part of the atmosphere missing from Mahler's orchestral version of the work. Conversely, the long, vibrato-less lines of Barber's famous Adagio suit massed strings better, and the Borodins' poor tuning showed why. A thought for Fretwork - is this piece ever played on viols? Their quiet voices might just be the perfect medium.

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