An Interview with the Borodin Quartet
“We absolutely love these two composers, deeply and constantly,” says violist Igor Naidin. “They are geniuses. You can play them all your life, and you’ll always find something new, something interesting, something unreachable. You can never play them too often.”
The group has recorded complete cycles of both composers’ string quartets – Beethoven in 2000, and Shostakovich in earlier incarnations of the 69-year-old Borodin Quartet’s line-up.
Though fourteen years have passed since the quartet recorded Beethoven, says Igor, the passage of time has not significantly changed the way the players view the music.
“Of course each of us, every time, approaches the masterpieces in a different way. As time passes we become different, and more wise, I hope. But as long as the generation of the quartet is the same, there will be no major different approach in the way we perform this or that Beethoven quartet. Of course the membership changes, but each newcomer is first trained in the reading of the pieces by previous and current members of the group.”
Naidin and his colleagues do not wait with baited breath for new academic discoveries which might shed light on Beethoven’s music.
“Of course we have his letters, and some information from those who first performed this quartet. But overall we feel that it’s a matter of the way we read the piece. I’m not talking about interpretation, in any official sense. It’s more about perusal, about the way that when you read a book, you have an impression.”
Paradoxically, the Borodin Quartet is a little too young to have actually premiered Shostakovich’s string quartets – that honour generally went to the Beethoven Quartet – but the group’s members did know and play for the composer.
“He was a man of great humour and sarcasm; he was able to be joyful and funny. He didn’t dedicate anything to us, but I think nobody has played his music more in the world than the Borodin Quartet.
“His Quartet No. 11 is overall a very unusual piece, not very well-known, but very special. It is very difficult and complicated, with seven movements non-stop. Also it’s rather gloomy, because it’s one of his latest works, and there’s really no joy.”
The 2014 tour will be the first time that the Borodins have performed Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet since 2006.
“It’s definitely one of his most famous quartets,” says Naidin. “It’s not only in memory of the victims of Fascism, but is also in a way Shostakovich’s own memorial. He was not an old man when he wrote it, but in letters of the time he said that it was a piece in which he mourned for himself, because of his situation. It will definitely be the highlight of that programme.”
A further highlight, Naidin says, will be Tchaikovsky’s second string quartet.
“There is some similarity between Shostakovich’s 8th and Tchaikovsky’s second string quartet. I could compare them in terms of power and emotion.
“Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 2 is something like Beethoven’s fifth symphony. It’s very powerful, and clearly understandable for a wide range of listeners. While his first string quartet is very pastoral in mood, and his third is rather mournful and funereal, No. 2 is a combination of everything. It’s an absolute fairy-tale. It’s very emotional, full of variety, and very sophisticated at the same time – it’s totally contemporary music.
“And actually, it’s not that easy to perform. After you have played it, you are completely emotionally exhausted. It’s not a piece you can play every day. You can’t live through those emotions on a daily basis.
“We just hope that the audience in Australia will experience a profound impact when they hear this piece.”
Like Tchaikovsky, Schubert had more than his share of antagonistic critics during his lifetime. The violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, leader of the Razumovsky Quartet, told Schubert that his “Death and the Maiden” quartet was worthless, and that he would be better off confining himself to Lieder.
“Schuppanzigh told him, ‘You know, this is no good!’ – despite that fact that he was a close friend,” says Naidin, “despite the fact that the piece is fantastically famous these days.”
The Borodin Quartet’s first violinist, Ruben Aharonian, says Naidin, is a great Lieder enthusiast and record collector; he brings his passion to the way the players view Schubert’s quartet, which has at its core his own famous setting of Matthias Claudius’ famous poem.
“Particularly in the second movement, it goes without saying that we have the singing nature of the melodic line in mind. The piece has inspired many people, and it requires total control when performing. We enjoy it immensely!”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp
The Borodin Quartet tour Australia 22 September – 14 October. For more information on the Borodin Quartet, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/borodin