Borodin Quartet, Fishmongers' Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Complete cycles of string quartets have long been the staple of festivals. Now it's the turn of the City of London to present the complete Beethoven in a series of concerts staged in six of the City of London's Livery Halls.

Complete cycles of string quartets have long been the staple of festivals. Now it's the turn of the City of London to present the complete Beethoven in a series of concerts staged in six of the City of London's Livery Halls.

The Borodin Quartet was founded in 1945 so has been playing cycles, arguably, longer than any other quartet. And it might be argued that, with personnel changes over its 59 years, the make up - and thus sound - makes for a "cycle" of Borodin Quartets. Only the cellist, Valentin Berlinsky, remains from the original line-up and that, alas, may need attention.

The final concert in the cycle took place in the Fishmongers' Hall whose modest capacity is ideal for chamber music. But sometimes the most obvious escapes attention: did anyone check the sound balance? With the quartet seated on a dais and acres of carpeted floor, the sound was distressingly muffled. And worse, as the cellist faced the first violin rather than angling out his instrument, his sound was constantly under-powered.

Op.18 no.6 began the programme. Beethoven did not start writing string quartets until he was 30 and so even if Haydn appears to be the model, Beethoven throws in idiosyncratic touches unmistakably his own. The jovial nature of the first movement is not quite Haydn, even if play between first violin and cello seems to ape the master. But the Borodin didn't seem in jovial mood, their body language deadpan with not so much as a flicker of a smile between players. Even in the Scherzo - a virtuoso piece of writing where Beethoven appears to signal the 20th century, deliberately skewing the beat with astonishing cross-rhythms - not a flicker of fun seemed to register. Only in the final movement Allegretto, after the grave La Malinconia introduction, did the first violin loosen up a little.

After the interval came Beethoven's final quartet. Op.135 is short and lightweight in comparison to the previous four; it feels like an afterthought. And yet, coming after a performance of an Op.18, it was interesting to compare its later "lightweightedness" with the early work. The lightness is of a different kind, a somewhat sardonic backwards look, delicate in texture, but stunningly angular in motivic material. The Scherzo, like the Op.18, again revels in syncopation but at the Borodins' plodding tempo (odd for a movement marked vivace), it had little chance of swinging.

The final coup de grâce was Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, that colossal movement lopped off from his Op.130. It's of no surprise that this piece occasionally crops up in programmes of the Arditti Quartet, a quartet dedicated solely to the performance of new music, for the Grosse Fuge, with its anarchic freewheeling, remains an entirely contemporary work. It is an extraordinary leap into the future. But not, alas, in this low-octane performance. Perhaps the Borodins were tired; this was a job not a joy.

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