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Music Reviews : Shostakovich Highlights Borodin Show

November 12, 1994|HERBERT GLASS

It might have been a winter's night in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the air filled with the tartly sweet strains of the Borodin Quartet playing Shostakovich and the sounds of hacking and sneezing--a few drops of rain having the same effect on Southern Californians' bronchi and sinuses as months of sub-freezing temperatures have on Muscovites' systems.

The setting Thursday was Ambassador Auditorium, and the Borodin Quartet--violinists Mikhail Kopelman and Andrei Abramenkov, violist Dmitri Shebalin, cellist Valentin Berlinsky--was displaying the jewel-like whimsies that constitute the 32-year-old Shostakovich's First String Quartet.

The exquisite lightness of tone, the wry wit, the infinite dynamic variety that these musicians have for decades been bringing to the composer's works are among the abiding marvels of the chamber-music experience.

There was a pertinent didactic point made as well: that both Beethoven, whose Quartet in F, Opus 18, No. 1, opened the program, and Shostakovich were wise to wait until their maturities to try their hands at quartet writing. Thus, both sprang into the medium as full-blown masters.

Which is not to say that Beethoven profited as completely as did Shostakovich from the Borodin's efforts on this occasion. The very sweetness and elegance of the performance, exemplified by the violinists' gorgeously long bow-strokes, masked the score's tenseness and power. Furthermore, it was impossible to avoid noticing Berlinsky's rather frail tone at this stage of his long and distinguished career.

And what can one say about any performance of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," other than "What, again?" It's the quartet that refuses to die, or even rest for a few weeks, and while there was much to admire in the Borodin's lush, sempre legato reading, it seemed rather a waste.

Many ensembles play Beethoven and Schubert well, but all of them learn Shostakovich at the Borodin Quartet's knee.

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