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Valentin Berlinsky - A Quartet for Life

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Foreword by Steven Isserlis

When first invited to write a foreword to the English version of this biography of Valentin Berlinsky, I refused (politely). After all, I met him only once, in Greece in 2003; it was a very brief encounter – though I remember how charming he was during our short conversation. Also, I have never played in a regular string quartet, so am perhaps not the right person to appreciate his historic importance as an ensemble player. But afterwards, reading the book, I began to regret my refusal. The more I read, the more absorbed and touched I was.

Today we consider – with good reason - the later Stalin years in Russia as a time of repression, of sinister paranoia, of endless suffering. We can forget, however, how much great music and how many wonderful musicians managed to survive those perilous times - albeit with difficulty, and with the necessary aid of much personal/political skill. These were years during which the Russian musical landscape was populated by such giants as Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Mravinsky; and in which, despite all the pressures and perils surrounding them, the blazing young (or youngish) performing talents who emerged included Gilels, Richter, Kogan, Shafran, Rostropovich, Svetlanov, Rozhdestvensky – and the Borodin Quartet.

The idealism of young musicians is always touching, their desire for a career less so; but young Soviet musicians at that time could be forgiven for being somewhat consumed with ambition, in that they were vying not merely for fame and glory, but for very survival. 'Success' could be the passport to foreign travel, a comfortable life and comparative security (though a word out of place, or merely being seen talking to the wrong people, could wreck it all). 'Failure' could mean a life of constant grey drudgery, or worse. It must have been all too tempting to use political manoeuvres in order to climb the ladder But here in this book we read of a group of four young people, notwithstanding that threatening background, signing, in a frenzy of untarnished idealism, a blood pact together, and drawing up an oath of allegiance which states that:

The Quartet is our main duty… members of the Quartet have equal rights… any problems must be presented to and resolved by the four members of the Quartet…The members of the Quartet must maintain relations that are based on mutual respect and trust. Behaviour outside the quartet must be governed by pride in the honour of belonging to the Quartet.

Who could ask for a declaration purer than that? No wonder that the quartet became celebrated the world over, famed for their warmth of sound, precision and commitment. Their success was particularly important since, although so many great composers, soloists and conductors had emerged from the Soviet Union, it had not hitherto been known for its chamber music groups. The Borodins transformed that perception; and they also, through their famous and boldly innovative Shostakovich cycles, considerably enhanced the reputation of Shostakovich's music around the world.

Of course, the members of the group must have suffered more privation, anxieties and humiliations than we children of the West can imagine. One gets glimpses of them in this book when Berlinsky talks of having to go to Dubinsky's parents in order to be able to eat a proper meal; of the necessity for the members of the group to pass their political exams; of playing for three continuous days without food at Stalin's funeral; and so on. But as Berlinsky was to explain later: 'The extreme contrast between our passionate ideology and real life was very conspicuous… But for us, the essential things were elsewhere. In a space that politics cannot touch, music can bring people together in concert halls.'

And, as he remarked in an interview given to mark both his 80th birthday and the 60th birthday of the quartet: 'Nothing in the world is more perfect or more replete with beauty and possibilities than the string quartet.'

That seems to have been the creed that sustained him through 64 momentous years as a member of this 'legendary' quartet. It is an astonishing and unique achievement, which is movingly celebrated, both in his own words and in the words of those who loved him in this very special book.

Steven Isserlis
London, 2018

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