Peak Performance by a “Sunday musician”

Glow. © Charles Thibo

A clever dilettante, huh? That’s what the composer Sergey Taneyev initially thought about his colleague Alexander Borodin. He later revised his judgment and treated Borodin’s compositions with due respect, which is fortunate since I like both composers equally well. In June 2016 I enjoyed the Russian Borodin Quartet performing Borodin’s second string quartet in Luxembourg, a lovely experience that I discussed in the related post, and now it is about time to have a look at his String Quartet No. 1 in A major.

Borodin wrote this piece between 1874 and 1879, years of paramount importance for the composer. The period was one of the most productive ones, and the passion for music, the creativity of his mind, his energy did not escape his contemporaries. The music critic Vladimir Stassov, who coined the term “Mighty Five“* for the group of nationalist composers that Borodin was part of, recalled that “occasionally I would find him in the morning in front of his desk, in full swing, his face glowing with inspiration, eyes flashing and his whole physiognomy transfigured. There was a time when he was not too well. He stayed indoor for two weeks and rarely left the piano”.

Meeting Franz Liszt

In 1877 Borodin traveled to a scientific congress in the German town of Jena – Borodin was a highly regarded chemist – and paid a visit to Franz Liszt in Weimar, just around the corner of Jena. Borodin recalls this visit as one of the most happy and rewarding experiences ever. Liszt welcomed him with open arms, they would discuss music affairs in a mix of French and German and they would play piano pieces for four hands despite Borodin’s reluctance. He confessed to Liszt that he was but a “Sunday musician” and was delighted by Liszt’s answer that “Sundays are days of celebration”.

Borodin amazed Liszt when he told him that he had never attended formal musical training at a conservatory. Liszt would laugh and say: “That is your chance, my dear Sir. Work, work… according to your own inspiration”. In a way Liszt embraced the idea of the “Mighty Five” that dilettantism could lead to an honest expression of musical creativity. Nevertheless, Borodin had acquired sufficient experience both as a performer and a composer outside the conservatories to write outstanding pieces of music, of which the orchestral pieces are better known than Borodin’s chamber music.

Paraphrasing Beethoven

String Quartet No. 1 has four movements of which three are based on elements of the finale of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major (Op. 130). In a piece for Oxford Music Online Robert W. Oldan qualifies it as a “work of consummate craftsmanship, utilizing all four instruments skilfully and idiomatically”. The first movement begins with a melancholic theme, followed by an elegant, lyrical theme, sparkling with counterpoint* passages. The slow, second movement impresses me by its gentleness and the balance between the cello and the violins. “The third movement is one of Borodin’s most brilliant […] scherzos, making effective use of harmonics and left-hand pizzicato, and the finale is rhythmically energetic”, says Oldan.

A clever dilettante? No more. Borodin’s music stood the test of time and his chamber music shows up at regular intervals on my playlist. I recommend the recording of Borodin’s quartets by the Borodin Quartet.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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