Saturday, 3 January 2009
A valediction for Valya
First message on the answerphone when we arrived back from the remoteness of our Cyprus retreat was from Robert White of The Guardian, telling me my already-filed obituary of Valentin Berlinsky (photographed above by Stanley Fefferman) was up and running on the website, and asking me whether I'd like to change or add anything.
That was the first I heard of Valya's death at the age of 83. It also came as a surprise to me since the patriarch of the world's longest-running chamber ensemble, the Borodin String Quartet, seemed oddly immortal, even if he'd only recently retired from the group of which he was a founder member back in 1945. Ever since I first saw it in the programme for the Quartet's 55th anniversary in Moscow - which was also Berlinsky's 75th birthday - I've always loved and drawn people's attention to this photograph from 1946:
There we see Berlinsky, second from the left, as a dreamy, shock-headed youth standing around Shostakovich with first violinist Rostislav Dubinsky and Barshais Nina and Rudolf.
That anniversary event on 19 January 2000 was a wild, intermittently wonderful event. It's true that the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence Sextet with Uri Bashmet and Stefan Metz joining the Borodins hadn't been terribly well rehearsed - I seem to remember Bashmet had only flown in that afternoon - and it's not a piece you can wing, but the inevitable Second Quartet of the group's namesake brought tears to the eyes as usual and the second half featured what to our non-Russian eyes and ears seemed like some outlandish tributes aimed specifically at Berlinsky: piano pieces, Pushkin recitations and a fine ensemble of young cellists Berlinsky had taught at the Gnessin Institute.
I was initially a little nervous under the seemingly benevolent but always watchful eye of the master, though relative newcomer Igor Naidin, the viola-player of the Quartet and Berlinsky's junior by 46 years, was a relaxed intermediary. Later I got to know them better both in London and at the Austrian Attersee Festival, where staying in a simple local inn seemed to put everyone, even the solemn Abramenkov, at their ease.
I'll leave details of Berlinsky's life, and some of the pithier utterances I was lucky to glean, to the above obit. But it is a loss - maybe not as wrenching a goodbye as the one to Slava Rostropovich, but the end of an era all the same.