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Meenaxi, String Quartets of Beethoven and Borodin – the Russian connection

A. R. Rahman has given music for another Hindi movie – Meenaxi: A Tale of 3 Cities (the 3 cities being Prague, Hyderabad and Jaisalmer) The movie is directed by M. F. Hussain which should automatically make it a visual treat (there shouldn’t be any lingering doubts is if the CD’s cover leaflet is any indication). I’ve given the CD my obligatory 4-5 hearings (Rahman rarely registers in one go; his is the sort of music that gradually grows on you - somewhat like western classical) and am thoroughly enjoying it. There are 8 tracks in all, the last two of which are instrumental (“Cyclists Rhythm”, the first of the two, puts the humble bicycle bell to an interesting use). No recycled tunes this time, most tracks have a fresh folksy feel, deftly (and seamlessly) fused with modern, electronic sounds. Rich and beautiful, precisely what I’ve come to expect of Rahman!

After a short stint with Beethoven’s symphonies, I am back to enjoying his string quartets. The institution of string quartet is the most profound, most sublime form of musical expression which was perfected by Haydn and Mozart and redefined by Beethoven. These days I am listening to his Op 59 “Razumovsky” quartets, which derive their name from the Russian ambassador to Vienna who had commissioned them in 1805-06. Beethoven was writing string quartets after 4 years, during which he had considerably matured as a musician (he was well into what we now call the “middle period”) and had evolved a unique style away from the daunting musical ancestry of Haydn and Mozart. In the first two of the three Op. 59 quartets, Beethoven even used themes from Russian folk to please prince Razumovsky; something that makes these quartets truly exquisite.

Another composer that I am enjoying listening to these days is the Russian composer Alexander Borodin. He started composing at a time when composers in Russia were increasingly turning to their folk heritage for inspiration. Borodin was a chemist and a gifted musician. The simple melodies of his second quartet have an attractive charm that makes it a joy to listen to. There is more; to quote from the CD’s accompanying booklet:

“This is no more evident than in the famous Nocturne (the 3rd movement of this quartet), which has been subjected to all manner of abuse in arrangements for string orchestra, full orchestra and even in a version for solo violin and orchestra by the composer’s friend Rimsky-Korsakov. On another level of music larceny, it was turned into the popular song And This is My Beloved in the 1954 Broadway musical Kismet, for which Borodin won a Tony that gave new meaning to the phrase 'awarded posthumously'”.

posted: 13.2.04

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