Long-playing record

Valentin Berlinsky looks back on 55 years with the Borodin Quartet, and tells Nick Kimberley what it was like to work with Dmitri Shostakovich
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The Independent Culture

String quartets come, and string quartets go, but the Borodin Quartet just lasts forever. Founded in Moscow in 1945 and still going strong, the Borodins celebrate 55 years of music-making with a European tour that provides a showcase for two of the composers with whom the quartet has been most consistently associated: Beethoven and Shostakovich. The concerts will also serve as a 75th birthday celebration for cellist and founder member Valentin Berlinsky.

String quartets come, and string quartets go, but the Borodin Quartet just lasts forever. Founded in Moscow in 1945 and still going strong, the Borodins celebrate 55 years of music-making with a European tour that provides a showcase for two of the composers with whom the quartet has been most consistently associated: Beethoven and Shostakovich. The concerts will also serve as a 75th birthday celebration for cellist and founder member Valentin Berlinsky.

It's been a turbulent period of history for Russia, of course, but also for the Borodins, yet Berlinsky recollects with tranquillity and not a little pride. He recalls how four young students at the Moscow Conservatoire decided to play together:

"We were all in the class of Mikhail Terian, a wonderful musician who was also the viola player in the Comitas Quartet. With his help we got together and worked out what we should play: the classical repertoire, of course, Mozart and Beethoven; and definitely Russian music. At first we didn't have a name; then we started to work in the Moscow Philharmonic Society, so we became the Quartet of the Moscow Philharmonic."

By the early 1950s, Rudolf and Nina Barshai (viola and second violin) had left, Rudolf joining the Tchaikovsky Quartet. A new membership required a new name:

"It was traditional in Russia for a string quartet to take its name from a Russian composer. We wanted to call ourselves the Tchaikovsky Quartet, but that was already being used. There were other Russian composers who had written quartets, like Glinka; but we felt his music displayed more of a Western influence. So in the end we took the name, the State Borodin Quartet, which is what we're still called in Russia. Then, you couldn't just decide on a name, it was a serious process, with many levels of bureaucracy to go through. Nowadays you take whatever name you like. That's why there are at least two Tchaikovsky Quartets in Russia now, which is a different problem."

The Borodins (as they weren't yet known) started playing Shostakovich's music very early. "We met him in 1946," Berlinsky remembers. "Professor Terian got him to agree to hear how we played his First Quartet, and I found him an easy man to work with. At the same time he was naturally very demanding about the precise details of the performance. Mostly he was concerned about tempos. He was always worried that his music wouldn't keep the audience interested, so he'd say things like, 'Take this passage faster, faster, faster still. We mustn't let the public get bored.'

"We played his Piano Quintet with him in 1947. In the first rehearsal we reached a moment in the finale where the viola and the cello are supposed to play together, but Rudolf Barshai came in late. Shostakovich jumped up from the piano and said, 'Please, keep it like that.' All the later editions of the score were corrected to keep it that way: the mistake became history.

"Some years later, we went to his apartment to play through the Eighth Quartet. When we finished, there was silence, then he got up and left the room in a hurry. We waited, and when he didn't come back, we packed our instruments and went home. The next day he phoned: 'I'm sorry I didn't come back yesterday. I was very excited. All I can say is: please keep playing that piece exactly the way you played it yesterday.' That was typical of him."

In the quarter-century since the composer's death, Shostakovich's string quartets have become an interpretative battleground. Some commentators see them as a series of coded messages, with the composer's famous musical monogram D-Es-C-H (in German notation, Es is E flat, and H is B natural) allowing licence to attach extra-musical significance to phrases and passages throughout the works. In particular, they become a response to Stalinist totalitarianism, something the Borodins themselves experienced in close-up. Without offering specific details, Berlinsky admits, "Although Shostakovich never spoke about them in that way, we all understood, without having to put it into words, that he put the intimate side of his soul into the music of his quartets. The messages weren't hidden messages, they were well known."

Though valued interpreters, the Borodins played none of the quartets' premieres. That honour went most often to the Beethoven Quartet: "We had great respect for their playing, but it wasn't a question of being influenced," says Berlinsky. "We tried to find our own way, our own sound. I think Shostakovich liked the way we played. In the 1960s, we recorded the 11 quartets he'd written up until then. I presented him with a copy of the set when it came out in Japan, and he sent me a letter, which I still treasure, saying he was grateful for the discs, and how much pleasure he got from listening to them."

The Borodins have since recorded the complete cycle of 15 quartets, and have made third recordings of some of them. As Berlinsky remarks, "A new player joins the quartet, and some details, some colours change; but the central ideas remain the same." When I ask how many members the Borodin has had over its 55-year history, he runs through some of the names like a roll-call of absent friends: "Barshai, Dubinsky, Alexandrov, Nina Barshai..."

He arrives at a total of 11 members. Some of them, like Rudolf Barshai and Rostislav Dubinsky, left the Soviet Union together; not Berlinsky. "I have never condemned those who left. It was their choice, they were right to act the way they felt they had to. It's difficult to describe in words why I stayed, but for me it was nothing to do with cheap patriotism. It was just that Russia is my fatherland; I couldn't imagine living anywhere else."

The Borodin Quartet perform Shostakovich at the Barbican, London, tomorrow, 16 Sept (020-7638 8891), and begin a Beethoven/Shostakovich cycle at the Wigmore Hall, London, 27 Sept (020-7935 2141). Its 6-CD set of the complete Shostakovich is available on BMG/Melodiya 74321 407112

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