Borodin Quartet

Wigmore Hall Concert, London, January 9th
Guardian review

Shostakovich's first quartet has often been misunderstood as a timid, almost glib response to his humiliating dressing down by the regime in 1936. Subtitled Springtime, and composed of four brief movements in an insouciant idiom, one can see why. Yet, when performed properly, this restraint is understood as part of the subject matter. Opening in medias res, reminiscent of a Tolstoy or Chekhov short story, one seems transported to a country drawing room. Tea has been served and polite conversation is in full flow.But amid the chatter and anecdotes of rural life, fragments of a lovers' discourse emerge.

The first quartet is one of the few that the Borodin Quartet, in previous ­formations, didn't work on with the composer. Although none of the ­original members remain (it was founded in 1945), Valentin Berlinsky was a guiding figure until his death in 2008, and his former student, Vladimir Balshin, is now the group's cellist. Balshin's relative youth shows only in his tendency to smile after a successful performance. But in playing he is at one with group's trademark mix of confidence and self-effacement.

This approach captures the quartets in the perfect light. Hovering between public and forbidden private worlds, these works are the heirs less of Borodin and Tchaikovsky than of Beethoven's troubled final essays in the genre. Saturday night's concert confirmed this with exemplary performances of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge and the third quartet of Shostakovich's pupil and most obvious stylistic heir, Alfred Schnittke.

Yet, as may have been predicted, it was a performance of ­Shostakovich's masterful eighth quartet that dominated. The group have performed this work, which in its incessant self-quotation amounts to a kind of potted autobiography, countless times. Teetering on the edges of expression, the performance remains the same; it is the work itself that deepens.

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