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(1900 - 1972)

Vadim Borisovsky was a giant figure in bringing the art of viola playing to prominence in Russia, paralleling Lionel Tertis’s pioneering role in Britain. As well as performing and teaching, this involved the preparation of a staggering number of transcriptions for the instrument – 200 or more.

Having begun as a violin student at the Moscow Conservatory, Borisovsky ended up as the only graduate in Vladimir Bakaleinikov’s class to specialise on the viola. This soon helped him to gain work with various Moscow groups and he became lead violist of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. A long and celebrated concert career followed in which Borisovsky’s artistry was generally acknowledged to be of great import, and was recognised as such by a number of dedications from composers such as Khachaturian and Shostakovich. A particularly intriguing facet of his work – rare and possibly unique in the Soviet Union at the time – was his mastery of the viola d’amour. In 1927 he gave a recital on the instrument in Moscow, playing repertoire written for it, as well as transcriptions.

Teaching was an important part of Borisovsky’s legacy, his pupils at the Moscow Conservatory (where he worked for nearly fifty years) including another legend of the viola, Yuri Bashmet.

Belonging to the Beethoven State Quartet for forty years was perhaps the cornerstone of Borisovsky’s musical achievements. This ensemble had a repertoire of over 600 works of which more than 200 were recorded. From 1938 the Beethoven Quartet worked closely with Shostakovich, giving the premieres of most of his string quartets as well as the notorious Piano Quintet with Shostakovich himself at the piano – a work which reportedly touched the hearts of Russian people, prompting frequent comment in the streets of Moscow as the USSR’s involvement in World War II loomed.

As a stylist Borisovsky is unmistakable, and his tone, characterised by a restraint in the use of vibrato and a curiously pervasive flautando quality (which is, nonetheless, quite forceful), is a familiar part of many iconic Beethoven Quartet recordings. These include the intensely powerful but regrettably poor-quality 1940 recording of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet (where Borisovsky’s haunting viola solo in the first movement is well known), and a very fine 1961 recording of his Quartets Nos. 7 and 8. In the case of the celebrated No. 8, the now-familiar drama and darkness is offset with a tone that is piercing without being strident: a pure sound, lacking adornment, that in many ways renders both of these works (and the stark No. 7 in particular) bare and intense. The resonant and truly massive tone from Borisovsky at the start of the fugue in Quartet No. 7 is simply astonishing.

The Rose’s Song, its melody reputedly composed by thirteenth-century count of Champagne and king of Navarre, Thibaut IV (also known as Theobald I of Navarre, or ‘The Troubadour’), is given a thoroughly modern rendition in Borisovsky’s arrangement which involves a spurious and largely redundant piano accompaniment. This 1951 performance has its own compelling integrity, however, as Borisovsky, playing on an attractive viola d’amour, artfully complements Nina Alexandryskaya’s deep mezzo-soprano tone, with its wistfully slow vibrato, in his melodic weavings and resonant double-stops.

In solo viola repertoire such as the Glinka Sonata (the second movement of which was plausibly completed by Borisovsky and recorded in 1950), or the 1951 Tchaikovsky or 1947 Sakharov items here, there is a hint of stridency to the sound especially on the A-string, unsoftened by the more invasive vibrato commonly found in viola playing today. This said, these are all fine interpretations, full of drama and, in the case of the Glinka, a good pace and sense of architecture. This can equally well describe the 1949 Brahms Quartet recording listed here, which is a very straightforward and well-paced reading benefitting in many ways from Gilels’s breath-taking pianism, especially in the scintillating finale. The Schubert Impromptu arrangement (recorded in 1951) helps to explain Borisovsky’s leaning towards the flautando tone. Here he uses it quite deliberately in the softer, more pleading episodes of the long, fluent melodic lines and it stands in dramatic contrast to a harder-edged, positive tone in the more ardent passages. In many respects Borisovsky’s playing sounds a little quaint to modern ears: in the earlier recordings especially there are remnants of earlier stylistic features, including occasional slow and pronounced portamenti, and the discreet vibrato can result in a slight lack of warmth, although the human level of intensity is rarely in question. These aspects work especially well in Shostakovich’s music, making the recordings of the Beethoven Quartet, with Borisovsky’s stout contribution, some of the finest on record.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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