ALEXANDER BORODIN – A Consummate Melodist – SQ No. 1

Russian composer Alexander Borodin [1883-1937] wrote two string quartets. Five of these string quartet movements contain some of the most glorious melodies in the genre. It begs the question, how does one differentiate such beauty? I guess by giving it a go. No. 2 is the most popular but I am going to discuss the First Quartet, which is still extremely fine. Maybe No. 2 another time.

This quartet opens with a splendid, slightly melancholy melody, played very slowly. The composer brings that melody into an orchestral-like passage. After a time the tempo quickens to be quite lively and the violins dance, as does the cello. This leads into another alluring melody, which is then developed by the quartet. The tempo quickens further for a moment, then the intensity drops back into another melodic section; now it’s racing. This is a sustained joyous mood with the violins really taking off. After a pause the mood becomes sparse and the violins build a strong melody as the dynamics rise. A recapitulation of a previous theme is delightful. This is followed by another, more measured joyous section. The theme returns, with a different orchestration. As we approach the end, there are quotes from previous melodies. The conclusion is the sound of two violins way up in their high register.

The second movement opens with a delightful violin duet, until the viola enters. There is an assertive passage which brings forth another melodic section. The violins dominate as they soar above the ensemble. Now the cello starts another fine melody, sometimes leading the way itself. The cello takes over and creates a slightly ambivalent mood. Now a fanfare livens up the proceedings, bringing with it an old melody made new again. The intensity rises for a time and there is a serious note to this passage, with plenty of powerful flourishes. The cello predominates as we approach the conclusion.

A stirring rhythm leads the next movement. The violins chatter away above the ensemble and propel the movement forward. After a pause there is a section of bell-like violin harmonics which is very attractive. The violins then work their way back into tempo and the race is on again. This is a very full sounding passage until it finishes with a couple of lone violin strokes.

The last movement, after a brief ensemble chord, opens with a longing melody for the violins. The chord is executed again. The cello leads back into the mood until a series of sharp chords signals a change. Now the violins bring the piece into a rapid tempo with strong accompaniment. This yields to a bright, light ensemble interlude. The violins are very busy until they lead into another quiet section. Then the rhythm returns. This is one of those ‘alternating fast now, slow now’ sections which I have come across before. The final fast section ends with a shimmering effect before a final chord.

The second quartet contains several melodies that have made their way into popular culture by being used in television commercials and appearing in movies. If you are able to listen to the work you will undoubtedly recognise some of these melodies. These two quartets are both very beautiful pieces.

There are many pairings of Borodin’s two quartets on Amazon US and UK – I’m guessing about a hundred. I have them by the Borodin Quartet on the Chandos label. They are also available on Spotify and YouTube. Seven different performances of the First Quartet can be found on earsense, including the Borodin’s.

Listenability: Brilliantly expressive Romanticism.


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