St Petersburg, Concert Hall

Alexei Volodin and the State Borodin Quartet

Alexei Volodin (piano)
The State Borodin Quartet:
Ruben Agaronyan (first violin)
Sergei Lomovsky (second violin)
Igor Naidin (viola)
Vladimir Balshin (cello)

Piano quintets by Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák

The State Borodin Quartet is a unique phenomenon in the history of music, not just in Russia but internationally as well. This legendary ensemble has earned a reputation as a leader in world quartet music, and the quartet’s phenomenal longevity was noted as far back as 1995 in the Guinness Book of Records.
This season, the State Borodin Quartet celebrates seventy years since its foundation. “Before us we have not four performers, but rather one instrument of incredible virtuosity” – this appraisal from Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung could adorn any review of any concert by the Borodin Quartet, whatever its members, be it the remote or recent past or today.
The history of this outstanding ensemble dates back to 1945, when at the Moscow Conservatoire (chamber ensemble class of Professor Mikhail Terian) a string quartet was formed including Rostislav Dubinsky (first violin), Vladimir Rabei (second violin), Yuri Nikolaevsky (viola) and Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), who was soon succeeded by Valentin Berlinsky.
Unlike other student ensembles, the future musicians of the Borodin Quartet had – even during their time at the conservatoire – felt themselves to be a single group and they resolved to dedicate themselves to quartet music. In 1946 the quartet, then still a student ensemble, became affiliated with the Moscow Philharmonic (their first concert took place on 10 October). Soon Vladimir Rabei and Yuri Nikolaevsky were succeeded by Nina Barshai and Rudolf Barshai. From the very first years of its existence, the quartet amazed audiences with the sheer scope of its repertoire. Alongside classical quartet opuses, the musicians almost immediately began to include works by contemporary Soviet composers in their programmes. In just their first five seasons they performed some hundred such works. Composers whose works the quartet’s musicians performed included Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Dmitry Kabalevsky, Mieczysław Weinberg, Boris Tchaikovsky, German Galynin, Yuri Levitin, Nikolai Peiko, Vissarion Shebalin, Edison Denisov and Alfred Schnittke among others. Many works have been performed for the first time by the quartet and have been dedicated to it. The ensemble’s programmes tell the story of the birth of Soviet chamber music.
In 1955 thanks to its outstanding performances of works by Alexander Borodin the ensemble received its name – the State Borodin Quartet, today a synonym for lofty performance skills. The ensemble’s second decade (1955–1965) was to prove a time of impetuous artistic growth. By then, the ensemble’s second violinist was Yaroslav Alexandrov and its violist was Dmitry Shebalin – the son of composer Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin. The new team (Rostislav Dubinsky, Yaroslav Alexandrov, Dmitry Shebalin and Valentin Berlinsky) existed for over twenty years, right into the mid-1970s. Dmitry Shebalin performed with the quartet for forty-three years, in tandem also being a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire and teaching many acclaimed chamber musicians.
In 1995 the Borodin Quartet performed abroad for the first time. In the course of ten years, the ensemble performed in twenty countries, among them Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, France, Finland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. All of the musicians’ concerts have met with tremendous success. People began to speak of the Borodin Quartet as one of the finest such ensembles in the world.
In 1950 the quartet began a collaboration with Sviatoslav Richter that was to last more than forty years. Together with the acclaimed musician, the ensemble performed eighty-three concerts in addition to performing and recording fourteen works including quintets by Dvořák, Shostakovich, Franck, Schumann, Brahms, Reger and Copeland. These concerts and recordings rank among the greatest achievements in international performance.
In 1975 Rostislav Dubinsky left the USSR; he had been the ensemble’s first violinist who, for the first thirty years, had provided its artistic inspiration. It is with his name that the emergence of the musical “signature” of the Borodin Quartet may be connected. His departure was naturally a blow for the ensemble. At roughly the same time, violinist Yaroslav Alexandrov was forced to leave the quartet due to illness.
At the time, many said that the Borodin Quartet would cease to exist. But the ensemble did survive. And its renaissance following a brief break in tours abroad showed that the quartet had succeeded in retaining its outstanding artistic qualities. The ensemble’s new first violinist was to be the young musician Mikhail Kopelman, who at the time was already a leader with the Moscow Philharmonic. Yaroslav Alexandrov was succeeded as second violinist by Andrei Abramenkov, who for many years prior to that had performed with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai. The reformed Borodin Quartet recorded quartets by Borodin, and this recording was feted in Great Britain as the best recording of the year.
One particular page in the history book of the ensemble is connected with its artistic collaboration with Dmitry Shostakovich – a collaboration that lasted more than thirty years. The Borodin Quartet performed his quartets from the very start of its existence to the last day of the composer’s life, always in close contact with Shostakovich himself. Shostakovich’s final public appearance as a pianist (at a festival of contemporary music dedicated to him in Gorki on 23 February 1964) was a performance of his own Piano Quintet together with the musicians of the Borodin Quartet.
The Borodin Quartet has placed Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets on the same level as other such quartet masterpieces as Beethoven’s sixteen quartets. Thanks to them, Shostakovich’s quartets have been performed thousands of times around the world.
Following Shostakovich’s death in 1975, work on the composer’s music did not cease. “Shostakovich, as they say, runs in the blood of the Borodin Quartet musicians,” wrote Donald Rosenberg, a reviewer for a Cleveland newspaper. The immense cycle All Shostakovich Quartets has been performed by the musicians (starting in 1980) dozens of times in Moscow, as well as in other cities throughout Russia and abroad – London, Madrid, Venice, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Vienna, Lisbon, Zurich, Helsinki, Paris and New York. A 1986 recording of all fifteen of Shostakovich’s quartets by the Borodin Quartet commemorating eighty years since the composer’s birth was also rereleased by EMI and BMG, two of the world’s great recording companies.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the ensemble was once again slowly revived and rejuvenated. In 1996 Ruben Agaronian was appointed first violinist, while Dmitry Shebalin was succeeded by Igor Naidin as violist. In 2007 Valentin Berlinsky was succeeded by Vladimir Balshin in the quartet. In 2011 Andrei Abramenkov was succeeded by Sergei Lomovsky.
The quartet has performed some seven thousand concerts in the USSR, Russia and dozens of countries throughout Europe, Asia, America and Australasia that have been attended by audiences of millions, produced recordings that have received highly prestigious awards and participated in festivals in Russia and abroad (December Evenings of Sviatoslav Richter and festivals in cities including Salzburg, Edinburgh, Paris, Istanbul, Bonn, Aldeburgh, London and Tokyo).
The Borodin Quartet has performed with stars of past and present, among them Konstantin Igumnov, Heinrich Neuhaus, Alexander Goldenweiser, Maria Yudina, Lev Oborin, Yakov Zak, Emil Gilels, David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Bella Davidovich, Eliso Virsaladze, Naum Shtarkman, Nikolai Petrov, Mikhail Pletnev, Vladimir Krainev, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Lyudmila Berlinskaya, Viktor Tretyakov, Yuri Bashmet, Natalia Gutman, Christoph Eschenbach, András Schiff, Menahem Pressler, Truls Mørk, Michael Collins, Mario Brunello, Sabine Meyer, Oleg Maisenberg, Alexei Lyubimov, Nikolai Lugansky, Boris Berezovsky and Alexei Volodin.
The quartet works with recording companies in Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the USA. The ensemble’s discography includes over one hundred titles. The musicians retain their lofty professional status and their “collective signature”. No changes have affected the intensiveness of the ensemble’s concert life or the level of performance of the musicians of the Borodin Quartet.
One highlight of the ensemble’s career came with a recording of all of Beethoven’s quartets together with Chandos.
Great credit in the continuation and preservation of the Borodin Quartet’s traditions is due to one of its founders – Valentin Berlinsky (1925–2008). Valentin Berlinsky said that when he formed the ensemble the “idea was for the quartet to exist on a permanent basis.” The musician himself performed with the Borodin Quartet for sixty-two years. He dedicated much of his efforts to educational and social activities; he was a Professor of the Russian Gnessins’ Academy of Music, organiser and Chair of the jury of the Shostakovich Quartet Competition and Artistic Director of the International Sakharov Arts Festival in Nizhny-Novgorod.
The ensemble is commemorating its seventieth anniversary with performances at such major international concert venues as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Konzerthaus in Berlin, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Cité de la Musique in Paris, the Cologne Philharmonic, Wigmore Hall in London, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, the Moscow Conservatoire, the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre and the Tonhalle in Zurich. The ensemble also appears at festivals in Schleswig-Holstein, Rheingau, Istanbul and Bergen.
The State Borodin Quartet is a recipient of the Glinka State Prize of the RSFSR (1968), the State Prize of the USSR (1986), the Mayor of Moscow Prize (1998) and the State Prize of Russia.

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