Every era has its role models and figureheads. Famous composers had considerable influence in their time, and made their mark on artistic circles. It is performers that perpetuate their heritage into new generations, and this evening we shall meet just such a quartet.
From generation to generation
The Borodin Quartet has existed for seventy years. All of the original members have left, but only one at a time as a gradual process. This has ensured continuity, which has been of importance to the quartet’s playing style and interpretation. It is in this way that musical awareness is passed almost seamlessly from generation to generation. Composers are dependent on competent performers to be able to develop their compositions. Once the works have been performed, the performers have passed on their insight and expertise to new generations of musicians.
We observed an example of this when the legendary violinist Ida Haendel visited the Bergen International Festival in 2012. She was well over 80 at the time (she refused to give her exact age, as she had lied about it at an earlier stage in her career). However, she had, like Yehudi Menuhin, trained under the Romanian composer-violinist George Enescu, who in turn had met Johannes Brahms and the circles around him at the turn of the century. When Ida Haendel ran master classes for young violinists in Bergen – including the Hemsing sisters – there had been few intermediary interruptions when studying repertoire from Brahms onward. Since the careers of these young musicians will stretch far into the twenty-first century, a direct connection of almost two hundred years has been established.
Shostakovich’s foremost instrument
From its inception the Borodin Quartet was the primary instrument of Dmitri Shostakovich as a composer. They were such excellent musicians that they were permitted to travel to the West to give concerts, representing Soviet excellence in music. They became a benchmark for the sound of the music of Shostakovich and other Russian chamber music.
In his String Quartet no. 8, opus 110, Shostakovich has placed his personal watermark on the composition. The quartet opens with a well-known motif, the notes D, E flat, C and B (spelling DSCH according to Germanic tradition), which recurs in all five movements. There are three Largo movements, all somewhat sombre. The first and second largo are separated by a frantic Allegro and a waltz-like Allegretto. Shostakovich quotes earlier compositions and re-uses elements in later works.
The quartet was composed in Dresden in 1960. Seeing the devastation of the beautiful city by allied forces towards the end of WWII awakened dramatic and traumatic memories in the composer.
Promoting Russian culture
Alexander Borodin, primarily a doctor and chemist but also a great musical enthusiast was one of the group of the New Russian School of composers known as ‘The Five’ or ‘The Mighty Handful’. The others were Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Their agenda was put a ‘Russian stamp’ on their music, to use national melodic features and to further Russian culture. Borodin’s greatest contributions, which have withstood the test of time, are his symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia and his two String Quartets. We shall hear the second of these quartets. Its third movement, Nocturne, is Borodin’s signature work, considered to be amongst the most beautiful Russian art music ever composed.
Inspired by folk music
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked concurrently with ‘The Five’, but was oriented much more towards the West, and was therefore not included in the group. His tonal language and the fact that he composed so many works within all genres nevertheless made his name instantly familiar in concert progammes worldwide, from his lifetime to today.
Even though he was less ‘Russian’ than his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky made use of Russian folk tunes and rhythms. In the second movement of this evening’s quartet there is typical Russian dance music in 7/4 time. In the following waltz movement too, the stress comes accordingly on the second beat. Around these movements inspired by folk music Tchaikovsky unfolds his mastery of the European music of his time.
Erling Dahl jr.
English version Roger Martin