Borodin – String Quartet No. 1 in A Major

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Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin who lived from 12 November 1833 till 27 February 1887 was a Russian chemist and a Romantic music’ composer of Georgian ancestry. He was one of the prominent 19th century composers known as “The Mighty Handful”, a group dedicated to producing a uniquely Russian kind of classical music, rather than imitating earlier Western European models. Borodin has been fairly known rather for his symphonies than chamber music. But it is his 2nd String Quartet that brought him wide popularity and not the orchestral pieces, as the melody of the 2-nd String Quartet later became popular in the Broadway musical.

A doctor and chemist by profession and training, Borodin made important early contributions to organic chemistry. Although nowadays Borodin better known as a composer, he regarded medicine and science as his primary occupations, Alexander was only practicing music and composition in his spare time or when he was ill. As a chemist, Borodin is known best for his work concerning organic synthesis, including being among the first chemists to demonstrate nucleophilic substitution, as well as being the co-discoverer of the aldol reaction. Borodin was a promoter of education in Russia and founded the School of Medicine for Women in Saint Petersburg, where he taught until 1885.

Borodin had started working on his String Quartet in A major in the summer of 1874, while he was working on his opera “Prince Igor”.

Ironically, Borodin’s 1st String Quartet is overshadowed by his more popular Second perhaps partly because it is more complex with its density of ideas and the extensive use of counterpoint.

Romantic, and definitely Russian, the psychological and emotional range of the First string quartet is vivid and vast, it is the sensuous feast of melody and color, with lyricism matching the second quartet, and the palette of strings writing a novel for the late nineteenth century.

When Borodin began sketching out his 1st String Quartet in 1873, he wanted to produce something identifiably Russian rather then follow German traditions slavishly. However, still the composition takes a predominantly Classical (yes, German) form: 4 movements with Andante and Scherzo in the middle. The Quartet was sketched out by 1875 and faced substantial work on it in 1877.

The score of the 1st String Quartet bears the subtitle “On a theme of Beethoven”. Even though the composer himself did not enlighten the reader on which specific Beethoven’s theme, but there is an alleged resemblance with the original theme from the Finale of Beethoven’s late quartet, Op. 130.

The 1st movement-sonata form-prefaced by a Moderato introduction that could almost pass for a Russian folk song, although a melody seems to be original. From the beginning Borodin is willing to use all four instruments melodically, although he tends to relegate the cello to a supporting role that enriches the group’s sonority. The 1st movement main portion Allegro begins with a flowing theme drawn from the Finale of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op.130.

The Finale, 4th movement of Borodin’s String Quartet No.1 is another sonata form part, again with a slow, haunted introduction Andante, enriched by solo for violin and cello. The main Allegro risoluto material bursts in with a driving, nervous and sharply accented theme.

The 1st Quartet’s 2 inner movements are particularly distinctive.

The 2nd movement Andante is the quartet’s center of gravity. It begins with a lamenting theme, in spare two-part counterpoint, given to the 1-st violin and alt, based on a Russian folk tune “The Song of the Sparrow Hills”, which suddenly bursts into a dramatic cry, subsiding again into wistful reflection, followed by grieving Fugato. Upon returning, the somber theme inverts its counterpoint for an especially icy and urgent tone. The ponderous Andante relaxes into the refreshing 3rd movement Scherzo, a treasure in chamber music literature.

The quick silver-like scherzo is full of energetic rhythmic play a-la Mendelssohn and the middle part Trio presents an astonishing contrast: using a combination of a mute and a harmonica, it sparkles like a precious music box, delicate and drifting amidst the rush of the surrounding scherzo. Borodin demonstrates that even in the medium of the string quartet he is a master of color.

In 1879 the composition was completed and published with a dedication to Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife.

It was well received, prompting one critic to pronounce that Borodin had produced Russia’s first great piece of chamber music.

The Quartet consists of 4 movements:

  1. Moderato– Allegro
  2. Andante con moto – Fugato
  3. Scherzo – Prestissimo
  4. Andante – Allegro risuloto

The Borodin String Quartet No. 1 is a beautiful written and the first of only 2 string quartets that Alexander Borodin left to us. The INGUZ Quartet had a great pleasure in recording such an important and historic quartet.

The composition has been recorded during July 2020 at the WestVest church in the Netherlands using a Blumlein microphone setting using 2 AKG C 414 XLII microphones and an array of Neumann KM184 microphones at 4-meter height to record the tonal characteristics of the church.

1 review for Borodin – String Quartet No. 1 in A Major

  1. Peter Janssens

    Thank you for putting this beautiful piece on disk. Now I can listen to your wonderful performance even when concerts are forbidden due to Corona.

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