String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (1881)
Borodin Quartet (1980)
reviewed by Tom-Tom
Alexander Borodin was not, chiefly speaking, a composer. He was a chemistry professor at the Medical Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. Composing was for him a special love which he tenderly nurtured on his few days off or sick days along with professing women’s rights. I imagine him whistling some tune of his while grading papers or conducting his famous chemical reaction experiments. A dyed in the wool Romantic composer, his melodies are almost all very lovely and memorable although natural and original. He composed a small but significant body of work from chamber works (leaving a few unfinished) to an unfinished opera he spent 18 years on. Without the concert season deadline stress of day job composers, he could tinker with his compositions until they met his satisfaction.
This well cared for aspect is very present in his two famous string quartets in A and D major. Written in the last 10 years of his life, they are pleasant, thoroughly composed works of interwoven melodies and tight knit harmony. Who knows how many semesters these golden melodies were floating around in Professor Borodin’s head.
The first movement of String Quartet No. 2 opens with none of the sounding out of the ensemble of No 1. In fact, egad! the cello, almost entirely underused in the first work opens the piece with a glissando rise to another rich Borodin melody in which the first violin soon takes over. The melody is passed back and forth between violin and cello with the center instruments taking over the harmony. The call and response continues as the 2nd and viola change to pizzicato and back. Delicious counterpoint ensues with the second theme being fleshed out beneath yet another fine high note melody by the first violin. The piece reprises its original melody with the first and second violins playing in octaves. The melody gets passed around some more this time with the viola taking more of an active role. There is less wanderlust in this String Quartet so far than in the first. The piece begins again but this time resolving into a darker turn. The themes get a bit moodier until the skies clear and the melody in octaves are shared by viola and cello. It’s amazing at how much more mature Borodin’s use of instruments and melody is this time around despite being composed a mere two years after the first and in a shorter time.
The second movement, a Scherzo again albeit this time one movement earlier, jovial with the violins chirruping away in thirds above light pizzicato begins very spiritedly before relaxing into a conversational pleasant dance floor waltz-like groove with frequent use of tempo fluctuation. Some tense variation of the first theme leads to another scurrying reintroduction of the Scherzo theme. The waltz returns and is amplified by echos of the Scherzo by the lower strings. One can imagine the setting as a Cinderrella like scurrying to the ball, luxurious dancing, and then scurrying well away before Midnight. Before you know it, the piece has finished much like its predecessor despite being 5 minutes.
Behold, the third movement, a Nocturne. Who puts a Nocturne in the middle of a String Quartet, I ask you? Borodin, that’s who. Even as a standalone piece, this movement is a masterpiece on par with the greatest of the composer’s oeuvres. It opens with a dreamy syncopated legato rhythm by the middle strings over which the cello, resplendent in tenor clef beauty lets out a sonorous yet bittersweet melody. This is echoed later by the first violin high on the e string. The piece doesn’t need a program to divine some romantic undertones. This is a conversation of love. Tension builds as the cello and violin parry off one another amid the staccato scales building suspense to a breaking point by the middle strings. The close knit harmony explodes as the eighth note harmony plays striking counterpoint to the canonic playing off of the first violin and cello. The cello resorts to pizzicato and the viola shudders with soto vocce tremolos. The balance here is very precious and the Borodin Quartet, true to their name, keep the promise made by the very notes they play as the cello sulks at having to leave and the first violin shares the feeling with equal bittersweet beauty. All instruments echo one another as the melody rises higher to the starlight.
The “calling into the gorge” element that ended the First Quartet also begins the fourth and final movement of the Second. Apparently, Borodin composed “In the Steppes of Central Asia” around the same time as this work. It certainly reminds me of it, anyway. The calling violins get a somewhat sinister response from the lower strings. The ensuing accelerando to a more staccato racing tempo is echoed on both sides of the ensemble’s spectrum until a smooth pretentious melody somewhat argumentative pervades above the chopping rhythm of other instruments. This debate of wills is passed around in a fugue-like state until the gorge echos return between high and low. A different theme emerges making use of the whole ensemble. At least one instrument maintains the nervous staccato rhythm from before despite the relative smoothness of the first violin and cello. The gorge echoing again and the movement reprises its opening theme. This time all instruments are headed pell mell into a Coda but not over dismayed at wandering half way there for some moody outbursts. It’s like the finale of an opera which was a comedy of errors with all made clear. The violin strikes and suspends a high note and the other instruments reprise the gorge echo and then enters Quartet-Ending power chords.
This piece demonstrates Borodin’s maturity as a composer and also as a hopeless romantic. The cushy ballroom scene of the Scherzo and the unyielding romanticism of the Nocturne alone hold it upon high to the ages. Listening to both of Borodin’s Quartets is a pleasure at any time for me. There are some pieces I personally have to be in the mood for, whether seasonally (St. Matthew’s Passion) or emotionally (Gorecki’s Symphony #3) but I feel as if it always a good time for a Borodin String Quartet or two.