We are truly blessed in Luxembourg. The Philharmonie de Luxembourg offers a first-rate programme of classical music year after year, and each spring, the city of Echternach hosts the Festival International d’Echternach, often with internationally renown guests. Yesterday I heard the famous Borodin Quartet performing Borodin’s second string quartet, Shostakovich’s eleventh string quartet and Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1. After a week full of bad, sad news, this concert was a blessing: Four excellent Russian musicians bridging a century of wonderful Russian music!
I will focus today on Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) as I haven’t presented this composer yet. But I will come back to the two other pieces, let there be no doubt about it. It is noteworthy that the Borodin Quartet was founded in 1945 in the then Soviet Union. It is one of the world’s longest lasting string quartets, having celebrated its 70th anniversary season in 2015.
On being an amateur
Borodin was one of the “Mighty Five“, the circle of Russian 19th-century composers that intended to create a purely Russian style of composition. The “Mighty Five” attached great importance on being amateurs – something that links Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Both pursued a non-musical career: Rimsky-Korsakov was a navy officer while Borodin worked as a chemist. However, being the son of an illegitimate Georgian nobleman, he learned several languages and played the piano, the flute and the cello.
By 1862, Borodin had composed several pieces of chamber music and Alison Latham’s Oxford Companion to Music says that a piano quintet written that year “provides evidence of his technical proficiency but also a dept to Mendelssohn and Schumann”. That was before he joined the “Mighty Five”! Once he had become a member of that circle, Mily Balakirev took him under his wings and encouraged him to write a symphony just like Balakirev had done with Rimsky-Korsakov.
Supported by Belyayev
In 1881, Borodin wrote the String Quartet No. 2 in D major. By that time, he had become the chairman of the board of the St Petersburg Circle of Music Lovers, an amateur orchestral and choral society. It was here that he met Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev, a wealthy timber merchant, who would become his patron as well as a patron of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. Unfortunately, Borodin found less and less time to compose. His wife was ill and his duties at the Medical-Surgical Academy kept him busy with committees, commissions and paperwork. The piece was published as late as 1888, a year after Borodin’s death.
String Quartet No. 2 is written in four movements and the first is very lyrical, reminding me a lot of Tchaikovsky’s chamber music. It certainly explains why the piece is often recorded with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, for example on a 2002 recording by the Prague String Quartet. The second movement is much more agitated while the third takes up the lyrical mood of the first, at least at the beginning. Half way through, it reverts to that slight anxiety expressed in the second movement. The last movement starts a little unexpectedly with a sombre, slow tune, followed by a lyrical theme, a dialogue with the two violins questioning and the viola and cello answering.
All in all a very nice piece, in a way very representative of Russia’s late 19th century music. But Borodin has developed over time a personal style that makes this piece interesting even after repeated listening. And having the Borodin Quartet perform this in Luxembourg was a lovely experience anyway.
© Charles Thibo