Concert review: Borodin Quartet shows what chamber music is all about

Clockwise from left: Members of the Borodin Quartet Igor Naidin (viola), Sergei Lomovsky (violin) and Ruben Aharonian (violin) and Vladimir Balshin (cello). PHOTO: SIMON VAN BOXTEL




Victoria Concert Hall/Oct 13 & 14

Longevity is the enduring quality of Russia's Borodin Quartet, founded in 1945 and still going strong for over 70 years. Its players have come and gone, with the last founding member cellist Valentin Berlinsky retiring in 2007. Of the Borodin Quartet that last performed in Singapore in 1996, only violist Igor Naidin remains.

Still, its two concerts, part of the SSO Chamber and VCH Presents series, gave listeners the full measure of what chamber music was all about. Three of its members partnered with Singapore Symphony Orchestra players for two popular quintets on the first evening. Violist Naidin and cellist Vladimir Balshin were joined by violinists Chan Yoong Han and Chikako Sasaki and cellist Ng Pei-Sian for Schubert's late String Quintet in C major.

Despite the "heavenly length" of nearly 55 minutes, it was a superbly paced performance that breathed freshness, revealing the intimacy of close cooperation all through its four movements. There was nothing to separate Russians and locals in the seamless music-making, from the opening movements' lyrical musings to more vigorous exertions of the Scherzo and Rondo finale.

Oneness of ensemble also inhabited Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, where violinist Sergei Lomovsky and violist Naidin played alongside pianist Lim Yan, violinist Margit Saur and cellist Wang Yan. In this music of emotional and dynamic extremes, the temptation to lapse into caricature was resisted. While playing the score straight, the result was a catharsis borne of extreme duress while keeping a straight face. This irony was clearly appreciated by the audience.

The Borodin Quartet, led by first violinist Ruben Aharonian, was on its own in the second concert, which presented diametrically contrasting halves. Musical sunshine lit up Tchaikovsky's First String Quartet, with its very familiar Andante Cantabile slow movement, where Aharonian's melodic line soaring above quiet pizzicatos from Balshin's cello could not have been more tender.

The rest of the work showcased immaculate ensemble, sensitive to myriads of nuances, and finely balanced by an understated virtuosity. The four players could easily have played this, their musical heritage, blind-folded. Hugo Wolf's brief and jolly Italian Serenade, filled with Mediterranean warmth, was served like an enjoyable encore.

A sugar-coated first half would scarcely have prepared one for the bile of Shostakovich's String Quartet No.15, his final embittered work in this medium. The hall was plunged into near darkness, with the players barely visible through dim lights illuminating their scores. This seemed like the only way to experience the work's six continuous slow movements, highlighted by painful pauses, pregnant silences and interjected dissonances. One could hear a pin drop amid this blanket of unnerving stillness and unease, so grippingly negotiated by the quartet.

There was nearly a minute of silence before house lights came on with the ensuing applause. Two short Tchaikovsky encores seemed trite and inconsequential, as all present knew all through the music's unremitting bleakness, they had attended a requiem.

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