The thunderstorm that provided accompaniment to the final minutes of the Borodin Quartet’s concert Tuesday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church could have put out the lights and still would not have distracted listeners. The ensemble is a picture of reserve and restraint, preferring to let the music speak for itself.
The quartet opened Friends of Chamber Music’s 60th anniversary season with a generous program of Russian music, played with polished professionalism.
Now in its 70th season, the Borodin Quartet has a rich history, dating back to 1945, with several roster changes over the many decades. All of its current members are graduates of the Moscow Conservatory. They’ve played this music so many times that it practically courses through their blood. At times there was a rote quality to the music-making, however, which rendered the occasional ethereal moments even more striking.
Those moments emerged most frequently in the final work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2. The showy first violin part plays almost like a violin concerto and put the heavy workload on Borodin’s first violinist, Ruben Aharonian. He was more than up to the demands, leading a focused reading that was at times playful, at times longing and always fascinating to hear. In the third movement, the melancholy of cellist Vladimir Balshin and violist Igor Naidin blended beautifully with Aharonian and second violin Sergei Lomovsky, providing superb advocacy for a piece that was one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites of all his works.
Less successful, surprisingly, was the String Quartet No. 2 of Alexander Borodin, the composer that gave the group its name. The playing was at times unfocused, and the famous Nocturne lacked the beauty one would have hoped for. In some hands, the Nocturne can come across as mawkish, but the subdued playing of the Borodin Quartet made one wish for just a little more sugar. Surprisingly, one of the evening’s highlights came in the orphaned fourth movement when Aharonian and Lomovsky elicited a gorgeous, organ-like sound that befitted the sanctuary setting.
Similarly, the Borodin Quartet’s playing of Shostakovich’s dramatic String Quartet No. 8 lacked the pathos one associates with a piece the composer wrote at a time of physical distress and political upheaval. According to legend, an early incarnation of the Borodin Quartet brought the composer to tears with its performance of his Eighth Quartet.
The current lineup didn’t plumb those emotional depths Tuesday night, reducing the work’s many dark hues to one shade of twilight. The Borodin Quartet’s sound is rich, dark and deep, and the playing at a high level of technical competency, but where were the expressive depth and angst?
Friends of Chamber Music presents the Ehnes Quartet Nov. 16 at Coral Gables Congregational Church. miamichambermusic.org
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