The Borodin Quartet plays Toronto’s Walter Hall on Friday and Music of the Sound on Sunday (Keith Saunders photo).

In chamber music, as when browsing Amazon, don’t judge a book by its cover.

On Thursday evening, four stern-looking middle-aged guys dressed in black shirts and trousers unsmilingly sat down in a tight little circle under the unflattering lights of the dour interior of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But once the bows touched their instruments, the musical glow was pure gold.

The Moscow-based Borodin Quartet, the oldest string quartet in existence, is one of the world’s finest as well as being the authority on Russian chamber music.

The musicians didn’t disappoint in this, the first of three summer festival stops in these parts, bearing 19th century music from their motherland. They performed two quartets by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), one by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and a little encore by Alexander Borodin (1833-1887).

The church, rather unwelcoming visually, turned out to be an ideal venue for this music, its gently vaulted ceiling gorgeously amplifying and clearly transmitting every vibration.

Most notable in the performances by violinists Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomosky, violist Igor Naidin and cellist Vladimir Balshin was how they managed to carefully meld control, balance and expression. There wasn’t a hint of exaggerated effect in any note of this Romantic music, yet every emotional nuance was present and accounted for.

Also impressive was the seamlessness with which the four players shared musical ideas, allowing a motif to slide from instrument to instrument almost telepathically.

The centrepiece of the programme was Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, a substantial, four-movement work from 1871 that the young Moscow Conservatory professor wrote for a concert he organized to promote his own compositional skills. This is an impressively structured work that blends classical forms with snatches of melody borrowed from Russian folksong.

The Borodins cleverly set up this piece by first playing the single movement of a string quartet Tchaikovsky began writing six years earlier, to see how far the composer had come. Its sustained, quiet opening chords, repeated at the close, also served as an excellent way to focus both the players and audience ahead of the meatier musical fare to come.

The other set-up piece was Glinka’s String Quartet No. 2, which dates from 1830, a few months before the 26-year-old Russian set off for Italy to become better acquainted with his real love, opera. This quartet is a clear homage to the tidy classical forms established by Joseph Haydn, rendered with Glinka’s own peculiar details — and given a light, engaging touch by the Borodins.

The encore was a Serenade by Borodin that gave the viola a moment in the spotlight.

All of the music Thursday evening was written in a major key, but even that wasn’t enough to inspire the Borodins to smile. Fortunately, the interpretations did this work for them.

Although none of the original members of the quartet is around any more, its gradual renewal means that, through the process of younger players working with older ones, the original ideas on interpretation have, hopefully, filtered down to the present day.

Is this how Dmitri Shostakovich heard them play 60 years ago? If so, it explains how the founding members could have inspired so much wonderful work from his pen.

Most remarkable was the oneness and the inner fire of each interpretation — something that can only be achieved through years of performing, travelling and rehearsing together every day.

It’s well worth catching these four serious artists and their Russian musical gems while they’re here.

  • The Borodins perform all-Russian programmes at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall tonight, for Toronto Summer Music. Details here. On Sunday evening, they play for the Festival of the Sound, in Parry Sound. Details here.

John Terauds

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