In Search of Past Time:
A Rare Interview with Maestro Ruben Aharonian touring UK with Borodin String Quartet
Ruben Aharonian is Armenian award winning virtuoso violinist, currently the first violin and the leader of Borodin String Quartet from Moscow, one of the oldest and the most demanded quartets in the world founded in 1945. Borodin Quartet was in the UK with a series of concerts in November 2014. The last concert on Sunday 16th of November was broadcasted live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC IPlayer for a month. I caught up with the renowned violinist after his last concert in the cosy St. Mary’s Church in Wimbledon for the MOST exciting conversation with the Maestro, as he rarely gives interviews and even more rarely talks about his past and present achievements…
By Hasmik Harutunyan, Free-lance journalist, London.
Q- Ruben, the UK concert tour of Borodin Quartet is now over, and your performances were described, as “unparalleled with insight and authority” while the British press is unanimous that this is “one of the best chamber groups of modern time”. What are your thoughts about this tour?
R.A. – I am very pleased the way our concerts went, both during Wimbledon Music Festival and Cambridge Festival. The audience in the UK is demanding and warm at the same time. It was a pleasure to perform again with our English friend, magnificent clarinettist Michael Collins Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major. It was exciting for us to perform in Cambridge for the first time, as usually we appear in well-known London venues. The heartfelt welcome from both mature audience and young generation of students in Cambridge was remarkable.
Q- During this UK tour, I heard your take on Borodin’s String Quartet N2 in D major twice, and each time it made me shiver with blissful sensation, so lyrical and cosmic it sounded in your interpretation. Can you explain what is the secret of the legendary “Borodin Quartet” sound, which has become your trademark and is so hard to imitate?
R.A.- It is quite straightforward, and is part of our quartet tradition, all four players are in fact accomplished soloists: Sergey Lomovsky (secod violin), Igor Naidin (viola) and Vladimir Balshin (cello) and I, we all get together and want to perform as one. Imagine a rough diamond, it is not attractive to start with, but you work on it, polish by hand over and over again until it starts shining like a sparkling diamond. We continuously work on the music to reach the ultimate brilliance and lustre. Some groups practice merely before concerts and then go their separate ways. We rehearse every single day of the week for several hours, except when we are in an airport somewhere in the world!
Q- I remember in my early teens, watching your performances as a young soloist at Yerevan State Philharmonic Hall. You were charismatic, passionate and so inspirational with your interpretationsof Khatchaturian, Brahms, Bethoven, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Babajanian among others. After enjoying a successful solo career with the most dazzling repertoire in the 1980s, how did you decide to join Borodin Quartet?
R.A. – After the collapse of USSR in 1991, I was still living and teaching at Yerevan State Conservatory. However, the concerts were becoming rare, there were no opportunities to perform abroad except in the former Soviet Republics. During the “dark and cold” years, the country and the government had other preoccupations than classical music. In 1996 I got a call from the cellist of the Borodin Quartet, M. Berlinsky, who asked me to join the quartet as the first violin Michael Kopelman had immigrated to the USA. I had never played chamber music in my life before, but after thinking for two days and two sleepless nights, I agreed to go to Moscow and meet the group for a rehearsal. On that first rehearsal it was clear for me that I was with musicians of rare calibre and that we had instant common understanding. That was 18 years ago, and I still think it was the right decision. Chamber music is a different way of making great music, the only difference is that you are not alone, and the way you play, affects the performance of the others, so you have to work constantly to sound as one entity.
Q- You were born in Riga after World War II, how did your Armenian parents end up in the Republic of Latvia?
R.A. – After the War, my parents had a contract to work as engineers in Riga, where I was born and lived until the age of 15. My mother was the driving force behind my musical education, she wanted me to be a violinist, and so I started taking lessons at the age of 5 with Abramis. When we returned to Yerevan, I continued my education at Tchaikovsky Specialist Music School, and after graduation, I entered Yerevan State Conservatory and studied violin with renowned Professor Donbaev. Afterwards I studied at Moscow State Conservatory with Professor Yuri Yankelevich, from whom I learnt a great deal and who prepared me for several International Violin Competitions among them first prizes in Romania and Canada. Unfortunately he passed away just before my participation in International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1974.
Q- Yeah, that notorious Tchaikovsky Competition of 1974, where you won the second prize and not the first… what happened?
R.A. – The President of the Jury of 1974 violin competition was David Oistrach, who decided not to give first prize to anyone, and no member of Jury challenged his decision, thus 3 contenders shared the second prize, this had never happened neither before or after me. This experience left me completely single-minded not to go through the ordeal of any other competition ever again. All I wanted was to perform on stage and earn my living!
Q- It must have been extremely traumatising experience, did you feel angry or frustrated?
R.A. – So many years have passed, I have forgotten all about it, but when I was a young, ambitious and competitive artist, it was different back then.
Q- Oh, so many years have gone by, and it seems you have made the choice to move on and move forward, as in the past two decades you have a second successful musical career as the leader of Borodin String Quartet.
R.A. –Borodin Quartet is among the most demanded quartets in the world, and has managed to survive for almost 70 years. We are very honest towards our audience in the way we prepare every single recital. It does not matter if we play in a big auditorium such as Birmingham Symphony Hall or intimate small church, the most important is how the audience is reacting to our music; it is not the number of seats that is central, but the atmosphere, the encouraging response that we get from our listeners.
Q- I am so curious what instrument you are playing on, it sounds divine, is it a Strad?
R.A. I used to play on a Strad for many years, but prices have become silly in recent years. So I gave it back, and now I am playing on an 18th century Italian instrument by Antonio Gragnani, which I am quite content with. Like in Dutch painting, you know, there are Grand Masters like Rembrandt or Vermeer and minor Masters, who are extremely talented too, it is the same with violin makers, there are major and minor masters.
Q- Currently Borodin Quartet is under new management, what difference does it make to your concert timetable?
R.A. – Under the new London based management, we will continue our 70th anniversary worldwide tour next year. This year we have given at least 60 concerts from New Zealand and Australia to South America, from Far East to Europe etc. We have a concert in two days in Moscow, afterwards we are leaving for a tour in India, followed by Scandinavian countries before the end of the year.
Q- Ruben, you spoke about the importance of honesty and integrity towards your audience, and in my turn, I have to confess, this meeting was my childhood dream come true, and I am so thrilled for this opportunity to catch up with you. Neither time nor fame has changed your hard work ethics, unbelievable modesty and the same elegant allure on and off stage. Thank you for your time, and see you next year with Borodin boys again!
Listen Borodin Quartet’s Recital of 16.11.2014 on BBC Iplayer for the next 30 days.