Last night at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, the Borodin Quartet presented three flavors of Russianness from the treasure chest of chamber music’s most exquisite repertoire. At once the heaviest and lightest genre, the string quartet promises an array of musical and human experiences: from a friendly exchange of musical ideas in the private home to a self-conscious display of contrapuntal technique or vividly portrayed historical horror on the public stage — the composers most associated with the genre have done it all. And yet the performers started off the evening with one of their specialties — something not often linked with “string quartet’s greatest” yet apparently well known to the public — Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2.
Although by no means an amateur composer, Borodin, despite his connection (in varying degrees) to more or less all the great composers of the nineteenth century, is not generally regarded as part of the mainstream canon of masters, perhaps because he never managed to regard composing as a full-time job. And yet, the famous Broadway songs “Stranger in Paradise” and “And This is My Beloved” generously borrow from the expressive melodic material in this piece. Leisure-time composer or not, Borodin’s music flows freely from a creative yet unconcerned artist’s pen. Great ideas, stringed together not in the most compact style, yet appropriately so for the friendliness of the genre, echo the amiability of Brahms’s early chamber music and even the 18th-century salon aesthetic. Or at least that’s how the performers presented this jewel of a piece, whose lushness could perhaps be attributed to meanings too private for us to decode (the piece was dedicated to the composer’s wife). From the beginning the group’s homogenous sound, and their way of melding and passing along phrases so seamlessly, highlighted the piece’s relaxed narrative, which always hovered over the details without letting any beautiful moment stand out too indulgently.
Cellist Vladimir Balshin’s opening solo, and his other themes and melodies throughout the piece, captured most naturally the friendly aesthetic of the piece, perhaps because he seemed so physically free – or else, the least restrained of the four. The group’s overall modesty – which verged all too often on restriction – was most compatible with Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8, which came next. Of utmost contrast with the Borodin, it is a potpourri of the composer’s favorite “smile through tears” mood, his typical irony and DSCH musical signature, and several quotes from his earlier works, including the Jewish melodies from his Op. 67 Piano Trio. This is music that demands attention; a monument asking for nothing but somber respect, this dark and pained masterpiece tells the story of a different kind of human experience. Whereas the Borodin’s salon friendliness could certainly invite listeners to join in, this piece puts itself at a self-conscious distance from the listener, who is supposed to be overwhelmed. And that is certainly what happened in this performance. Every movement, ranging from the opening lament, to the frenzied toccata, to the frightful evocation of gunshots, to the depressingly inconclusive end, was structured perfectly and so theatrically conveyed by the performers (who never meddled over-fussily with details), that it progressively tightened, willingly or not, the atmosphere in the hall. One could cut the dark tension with a knife.
The fact that the performers had played the Borodin with almost as much choreographic and performative (yet not musical) restraint as the Shostakovich only really became apparent by the time Tchaikovsky’s Second Quartet came along. Also not wholly associated with the string quartet genre, his pretty yet clunkily arranged ideas lost, especially in the outer movements, some of their well-meaning spark (which, contrastingly, the Borodin did self-sufficiently retain) because of the performers’ prevalent seriousness. The quartet’s ability to form a smooth choir of voices, and their comfortable physical language, which unites them into one single, larger body, shows just how comfortably and naturally they have grown to work together — and presents exactly that highest level of musicianship that perhaps only string quartets could truly enjoy knowing. Yet in order for listeners to see how the music goes, they must be shown a bit more of how phrases are passed around and relate. So smooth was their playing that, besides in the Shostakovich’s perfectly portrayed immovability, one would have wished for the slightest twitch of an eyebrow, the most fleeting, gracious smile, or at least a nod or two, in order to see how the string quartet internally operates, and how the music is based equally on dialogue as on narrative.
Nevertheless, the quartet’s nuanced sounds and capacity for storytelling and mood-setting could transport any listener from earth to heaven and back to earth again. Since its ranging tour of such a rich collection of Russian music was so convincing, one wonders, for example, how effective its performances of Beethoven’s late quartets must be. This group’s artistry whets our appetite for more.