Borodin String Quartet no. 1 in A

performed by the Borodin String Quartet (who else?) or below by the Moscow String Quartet

Borodin was a rebel.

The Mighty Handful of Russian composers were dedicated to producing distinctly Russian sounding music, or rather to establishing what that even would be, and a result of that was obviously being distinctly not German or French or whatever. Tchaikovsky himself was not a card-carrying Might Handful member, but Borodin was, and I wonder sometimes if it was simply a matter of convenience, a strategic career move, because it seems he (and Rimsky-Korsakov, for a time) held beliefs that were far more in line with European trends than their staunchly more Russian counterparts, like Cui, Mussorgsky, or Balakirev. Stasov is a name that comes up here and there, and he was pretty tight with Mussorgsky, as we have seen, and their similar artistic ideals shows it.

Borodin started to work (daringly!) on his string quartet in 1874, on and off between composition of other pieces, like Prince Igor, and it was finally finished a few years later, in 1877, but not performed until 1880. In the process of composition, Naxos says “Sketches of the quartet were shown to Stasov and Mussorgsky in April the following year, much to their dismay at this use of a form that they chose to regard as obsolete.” I would argue they might have turned their noses up at its German heritage, but I also find this interesting because Borodin was actually six years Mussorgsky’s senior, although almost a full decade younger than Stasov. As we shall see, this work makes me wonder whence comes Borodin’s expertise writing for the string quartet. It’s a truly wonderful work.

The first movement begins with a long, relatively straightforward but expressive and emotionally captivating introduction, marked moderato, before the allegro first subject that is about twice the introduction’s speed, but still in 2/4. Both subjects of this movement after the introduction are full of life, forward motion, not drive, necessarily; they’re more lyrical than that. They’re melodic, pleasant, sweet, and yet rich and full-bodied. It’s exquisite, delightful quartet writing. It’s folksy and serenade-like, expressive and welcoming but not void of depth.

At first (distracted, unfocused listen[s]) to this work, nothing really stood out to me about it, but it has a delicate, wonderful fragrance about itself that is really delightful, and takes just a little bit more of your attention to savor, not the kind of thing you can scarf down on the run. The development section certainly has its crunchier, livelier moments to bring contrast to the well-rounded content of the exposition, and there’s a wonderful little section in canon. The first movement is the longest, with oodles of delicious musical detail to enjoy. It’s easy to follow, enjoyable to listen to, but also very strongly musical, presenting and developing themes that build a logical structure. It’s got it all.

The overwhelming impression is that Borodin’s writing for string quartet is effortlessly perfect, and this continues into the slow second movement. It’s a bit more melancholy, but it’s maybe better described as tender or nostalgic, as it never really crosses the line into mourning or outright tragedy. It’s a little more spacious, with some room to breathe, but darker than the first movement. There’s a serenade-like, sweetly and slightly intoxicating lyricism about this writing, passionate, moving, like something from the pages of a fairytale.

Instead of a crunchy, knock-your-socks off kind of a heavy scherzo, this one is very brisk, light, and quick on its feet. It’s nothing short of effervescent, and the corresponding trio for this shortest movement of this quartet is dreamy and crystalline with one brief interrupting heavier passage. The composer’s use of color and effects and intricacies of the quartet make for wondrously effective quartet writing and a very individual piece.

And for the finale we have something that hearkens a little bit back to the first movement, an emotive, slow introduction leading into an exciting finale that’s as exciting in its unfolding of material as in the material itself, if that makes sense. ‘Structure’ isn’t a word that turns people on usually, but it’s the way a story is told. You can’t keep repeating the same thing, and neither can you jump all over the place to new, unrelated stuff. Borodin’s content for this entire quartet has been richly enjoyable and full of detail and beauty, but zoom out a little bit and enjoy how that content is developed and presented, and I think it can be appreciated even more.

Add to that Borodin’s masterful writing for the string quartet, be it either in the clarity and unity of voices, or the use of pizzicato, natural harmonics and other string-ish effects to produce and present a piece that could not exist in any other form but for string quartet. Expand it out to string orchestra, and you lose the charm and intimacy of the work as well as its lightness and approachability. This is a work that makes me wish there were a dozen more Borodin quartets to enjoy, and this isn’t even the most famous of the two!

I’m really pleased by this work, and were it up to the general opinion, the second is the one that should be featured, but look what you can come across when you don’t only listen to public opinion. It’s a charming work that seems like it should get more attention than it does. But that’s all for now. Stay tuned as we move forward in our midweek music into the 20th century.

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