RIP- Valentin Berlinsky

It sounds a bit absurd to express surprise at the death of an 83 year-old man, but I was genuinely surprised to learn of the death of the cellist of the great Borodin Quartet, Valentin Berlinsky, who died a few weeks ago. After 62 years in the quartet, I’d assumed he’d be there forever, and had even thought of his retirement in 2007 as a passing phase…

 The Borodin’s where surely one of the great quartets of all time. They’re probably best known for their recordings of the Shostakovich quartets (they recorded them several times as the group’s personnel evolved over the years), and these recordings sit alongside those of Rostropovich, Oistrakh and Daniel Shafran as the most valuable resources to understanding the performing traditions of Shostakovich’s time and the style of playing he wanted.
The Borodin’s performances of Shostakovich were markedly different from most Westerner’s ways with this music. While too many American and British groups scratched and hacked their way through Shostakovich’s music, the Borodin’s played it with unerring polish, warmth and beauty, and in doing so, allowed the music’s rage, intensity and wit to come through with startling clarity. I’m still suprised how many Western players think Shostakovich’s music should be played with an unmusical sound and no care for refinement of intonation or variety of color.

They also excelled in the core quartet repertoire and brought a rare level of seriousness and commitment to other Russian chamber music. Their recording of the Tchaikovsky quartets illuminated these three strangely neglected works as the masterpieces they are. I’m playing the last Tchaikovsky quartet with Ensemble Epomeo and Suzanne in March, and I think we’ll dedicate the concert to Berlinsky.

Through it all, there was Berlinsky. First violinists came and went (I’m glad to have studied with two of them), as did the violist Rudolf Barshai, who went on to become a major conductor. Founding first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky (my chamber music teacher at IU) painted Berlinsky as a character of Shakespearean proportions in his memoir of the Borodin years, Stormy Applause. Berlinsky comes across as alternately flawed, wise, complex, strong, and even occasionally villainous, but Berlinsky endured over the years (outlasting Dubinsky by several decades!), playing at an astonishing standard throughout his 70’s in spite of nearly crippling his left hand in a car accident decades ago. I never got to coach with him, something I would have loved to do.

Radio 4 had a nice appreciation of him on Last Word this week. You can hear the
program here for the next 7 days (the Berlinsky part of the program is near the end).
Obits here, here, here, here and here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “RIP- Valentin Berlinsky”

  1. R.A.D. Stainforth

    Alas! Berlinsky was far more than a chamber musician.

    The Torygraph obituary is, regrettably, naive crap – harnessing his eulogy to a propaganda chariot more Soviet than the author can have guessed. To dismiss Berlinsky’s enormous commitment to teaching an entire generation of Russian cellists in one sentence is a severe injustice. I think most of us already knew there were some privations in the USSR … the idea that the USSR also offered rather idyllic conditions for its hot-house flowers seems to have beyond the wit of the author concerned. The rest of the errors in it glare sufficiently without needing a magnifying glass. To read this on face value, it seems amazing that the USSR produced any musicians at all … I wonder how they square this with the astonishing virtuosity of the performers who came out of this system?

    It’s a pity when a celebration of a musician’s life turns into a piece of point scoring. Not least among the piece’s ideological assumptions is that the only basis on which to judge a Russian or Soviet musician was their reputation in the West.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi RAD-

    Good thoughts. Nothing exposes the presses inability to deal with compexity and nuance than anything that lets them slip back into their comfy old Cold War cliches….

    Love your blog

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