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Valentin Berlinsky: A Quartet for Life

Valentin Berlinsky: A Quartet for Life
Compiled and edited by Maria Matalaev
Kahn and Averill, 198 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Sixty-four years is a long time. For a person to be one of the best in the world at one task for that long is truly remarkable. As the cellist for the world-renowned Borodin Quartet, Valentin Berlinsky accomplished an incredible feat.

A Quartet for Life is a collection of interviews with Berlinsky and is combined with excerpts from his memoirs and interviews with people who knew him well. Berlinsky recalls his musical life with crystal clarity from the desperate days of World War II, when he was a young Soviet musician, to his time in the 21st century as a revered figure in a revered quartet.

Loyalty to the string quartet as the most sacred form of music is what drove Berlinsky (who died in 2008) throughout his long life. For Berlinsky, the Borodin Quartet held priority over all things. Early on, he and the other founding members signed constitutions affirming their loyalty to the group. Relationships were often stormy, especially as members became tempted to leave the Soviet Union for the West. Despite touring the world, Berlinsky always considered the Borodins to be a Russian quartet, so closely did he identify with his home country.

Not surprisingly, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and composer Dmitri Shostakovich feature prominently in A Quartet for Life. Rostropovich was a founding member of the Borodin Quartet in 1943 but left after two weeks to begin his solo career. Rostropovich and Berlinsky remained on excellent terms their entire lives. The same was true for Shostakovich, who kept the Borodins in his inner circle throughout the latter half of his career. The Borodins recorded all fifteen of Shostakovich’s quartets, and in A Quartet for Life, Berlinsky offers insights into each one.

Berlinsky shares many anecdotes. One involves how Shostakovich “ratified” a mistake. Shostakovich was a famous stickler for insisting that musicians play his work according to the text. But when one Borodin (possibly Berlinsky) accidentally played a wrong note, Shostakovich loved it and rewrote the piece as a result. Another entails how Berlinsky and Rostropovich conspired to cheat on an exam during their heady student days.

And regarding why Berlinsky once wore a lady’s mink coat through customs at a London airport in summer, you’ll just have to read to book to find out.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Berlinsky is that he never owned his cello. He never cared much for the commercial or political sides of music. He could have denounced Shostakovich when it was politically expedient to do so or committed acts of espionage on behalf of his government, but he never did. Valentin Berlinsky’s greatest dedication was to music and, for sixty-four years, to the Borodin Quartet.

This book review appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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