The quartet, being one of the world’s most senior ensemble was founded in 1945, ten years before it adopted the name Borodin Quartet. Its longest-serving member, Valentin Berlinsky, was there almost at the beginning, though he modestly declines the title of having been the original cellist. His one predecessor, who decided after some time that his career lay outside full-time devotion to ensemble playing, was Mstislav Rostropovich.
The first settled formation comprised Rostislav Dubinsky and Vladimir Rabeij (violins), Rudolf Barshai (viola) and Valentin Berlinsky (cello), performing under the name Quartet of the Moscow Philharmonic. During the first decade there were several changes of personnel: Nina Barshai (wife of Rudolf) replaced Rabeij after two years, then made way for Jaroslav Alexandrov in 1952. In 1953 – the year the quartet was required to play on a single day at the funerals of both Stalin and Prokofiev – Rudolf Barshai left to pursue his career as a soloist and conductor, and his place was taken by Dmitri Shebalin. The formation of Dubinsky, Alexandrov, Shebalin and Berlinsky lasted for two decades, having been cemented in 1955 by the change of name.
In its inaugural year as the Borodin Quartet (the name honouring the great Russian composer), the ensemble began to give concerts outside the Soviet Union. As well as playing in East Germany to mark the tenth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the quartet made its first “foreign” tour, of Czechoslovakia. Despite the restrictions placed on Soviet artists in the Cold War years, the quartet appeared outside the Soviet Union, and even toured the USA.
In the mid 1970s, at a time when recordings were spreading the ensemble’s reputation still wider, a new formation was necessitated when Alexandrov left (1974) and Dubinsky emigrated to the West (1976). Berlinsky, whose soul may be said to be invested in the Borodin Quartet, recruited two new violinists, Mikhail Kopelman (1st violin) and Andrei Abramenkov (2nd). The following two decades saw the quartet accepted internationally as one of the world’s most renowned ensembles, revered for its authority in Russian music and Shostakovich in particular. New recordings were critically acclaimed on all continents, and the already taxing touring schedule intensified when the Soviet system ended in 1989 and the whole world clamoured to hear the Borodin Quartet in live performance.
In the 1990s the quartet again underwent membership changes. Viola-player Dmitri Shebalin retired to be replaced by Igor Naidin, while Ruben Aharonian became the new 1st violin when Mikhail Kopelman left. In 2007 Valentin Berlinsky handed over the role of cellist to Vladimir Balshin.
Throughout all these changes, the Borodin Quartet has retained its distinct identity. “As each newcomer joins,” as the Quartet believes, “he hears the existing members playing in a very recognisable style, so he is automatically soaking up the tradition. It’s not formal teaching, as if your colleagues are correcting you. A quartet is in a permanent state of studying from each other. It’s as natural a process as could exist, learning while performing with your elder colleagues.”