Notes and Editorial Reviews
ONYX 4069 (2 CDs: 104:22)
We do not associate the Borodin Quartet much with 18th-century repertoire, and in fact they have made few recorded forays into it. On the strength of this set, they should do more. Here they tackle Haydn’s “Russian” quartets, which actually have little to do with Russia. Unlike Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets, which were commissioned by a Russian diplomat and incorporate several Russian themes, Haydn’s
op. 33 acquired its nickname for the trivial reason that an early performance of some of these works took place in the apartments of the future Tsar Paul, who was visiting in Vienna, and that the first published edition was dedicated to Paul. The Russian connection was thus entirely after the fact.
This is not the same ensemble that recorded most of the Borodin Quartet performances now in the catalog. Of that foursome, only second violinist Andrei Abramenkov remains. His current colleagues are violinist Ruben Aharonian, violist Igor Naidin, and cellist Vladimir Balshin. Even with these changes in personnel, the quartet retains many of its familiar characteristics. As anticipated, its Haydn is Beethovenian in character, rather weighty and emphatic, with strong vertical stresses and incisive attacks, in marked contrast to the fleet and lightly accented approach of the Auryn Quartet (Tacet). I find much enjoyment in the latter performances, yet in them there is a sense of restraint that says, “This is elegant 18th-century music, and we must not be too assertive or show too much emotion in playing it.” The Borodin Quartet feels none of that restraint. The B-Minor quartet (No. 1) sounds a good deal angrier in this rendition, and the “Joke” and “Bird” quartets (Nos. 2 and 3) also fare especially well in such forceful treatment. The delicacy, refinement, and effortless flow of the Auryn performances have an undeniable appeal, but the vigorous and thrusting approach of the Borodin is also valid and enlarges the scale of these pieces. The Borodin players are technically accomplished, with excellent ensemble and intonation and pleasing tonal qualities as well as plenty of energy. The sound of the recording, complementing the forceful approach, is very bright, close up, and transparent, with more individualization of the instruments and more prominence given to the violins than in the Auryn recording.
Another fine op. 33 set is that of Quatuor Mosa?ques (originally on Astrée but now on Na?ve), which unlike the other two ensembles performs on period instruments. Although less forceful than the Borodin, these performances are more expressively inflected than the Auryn, sensitively accented, technically immaculate, and tonally rich, displaying none of the negative characteristics attributed to period instruments by their detractors. The Mosa?ques players make liberal use of agogic accents, to a greater degree than the other two ensembles. In terms of sound quality, their recording falls between the blended sound of the Auryn and the clarity and transparency of the Borodin. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the performances of the Buchberger Quartet (Brilliant Classics), which have received much praise in
. Nor have I heard the Festetics Quartet’s op. 33 set (Arcana), but I have other Haydn recordings by that ensemble and consider them excellent.
The Borodin players are parsimonious with repeats, while the Mosa?ques and especially the Auryn are more generous in that respect. I prefer to have all repeats taken, to prolong enjoyment of this delightful, endlessly inventive music, but I would not let this consideration deter me from appreciation of the Borodin Quartet’s fine performances. On the Borodin recording the quartets are performed in numerical order, while the Auryn uses the order 5-2-1-3-6-4 and the Mosa?ques 5-3-2-6-1-4. The notes to the Auryn recording state that No. 5 was placed first in the original published edition. The remaining inconsistencies are unexplained.
To my mind, listeners could not go wrong with any of these sets, but they might prefer one or the other based on the characteristics described. I’m happy to possess all three.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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