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Elaine Fine
American Record Guide, May 2009

Filmed for BBC TV in 1987 in London in the Henry Wood Hall without an audience, these beautifully-recorded readings really let us into the Borodin Quartet’s “music first” approach to literature that they play better and with more immediate understanding than any quartet I can name. This video captures what quartet playing is all about: matching bow strokes, dynamics, and timbre; letting the music be, and letting it be great on its own without theatrics. This is serious music, and the quality of the filming matches both the seriousness and the quality of the playing.

A set of panels painted in an abstract expressionist style (kind of like Franz Kline) stands behind the quartet for the Shostakovich, and the quartet members wear grey matter-of-fact business suits with long ties and use sturdy black stands, creating a kind of austere dark background (which gains a red light for some of the Shostakovich 8th) that makes it easy to see as well as hear the music. For the Tchaikovsky quartets the musicians wear bow ties, play with wooden lyre stands, and sit in bright, yet warm light, on imperial-looking chairs.

The 1987 configuration of the quartet, with violinists Mikhail Kopelman and Andrei Abramenkov, violist Dmitri Shebalin, and Valentin Berlinsky playing the cello, remained the same as it was in 1976. The presence of Berlinsky, who was with the quartet for most of its life (Rostropovich was the original cellist when it began in 1945), insured a remarkable consistency over the years. (Berlinsky retired from the quartet in 2007, and he died in December of 2008, a day or two after I first watched this.) After hearing this quartet play so often, it is a pleasure to finally see them.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2009

…the Borodin manages to dispatch the first two of Tchaikovsky’s three less-than-award-winning string quartets in performances that make a stronger case for them than one often hears. When so many ensembles try and fail to please in certain works, one begins to suspect that the music itself is at fault and to fix blame on the composer. And for sure, Tchaikovsky has taken his knocks when it comes to his string quartets in particular and to his chamber music in general. He was one of the all-time great composers, there’s no questioning that, but chamber music just wasn’t his calling. The Borodins take extra care to delineate the sinuous and sometimes sensuous sonorities of these scores, and it pays off in performances that elucidate Tchaikovsky’s adeptness at writing for string quartet in ways often missed by others…The Borodin Quartet had a working relationship with Shostakovich, playing his quartets while the ink, figuratively speaking, was still wet on the page…for a straight-from-the-horse’s mouth authenticity, if you will, the Borodin Quartet enjoys a certain cachet others don’t. These are really outstanding performances.

The DVD does not appear to have been filmed before a live audience. The foreground and background are blacked out, and the camera remains focused on the players. So, once again, what we have is a straightforward documentary on film of what would otherwise be called a studio recording. All of the usual standard menu and audio selection features are present, but there is no afterword in the form of interviews or extra goodies. Sit, watch, and listen; or, if you like, kill the video and just listen.

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4:43:52 AM, 2 September 2015
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