By ANDRE ACIMAN
When my friend the music critic told me that the best performances of Shostakovich’s B-flat minor and E-flat minor quartets (the 13th and 15th, respectively) were recorded by the Borodin Quartet in the U.S.S.R.,I instantly went online to buy them. These two works rank among the most profound and moving lyrical compositions of our times. In his haste, however, my friend the music critic forgot to specify which recording by the Borodin Quartet I should buy.
There are, it turned out, two complete recordings of Shostakovich’s quartets by the Borodin Quartet. As I discovered while surfing, members of the “old” Borodin Quartet, who had worked closely with Shostakovich himself and who recorded the quartets in the late 1960s and early 1970s, did indeed produce a recording of the 13th Quartet, now in print from Chandos. But the old Borodin Quartet never got around to recording the 14th or the 15th. It was only in the early 1980s that a new incarnation of the Borodin Quartet recorded the 15th.
But here, too, there was a catch: That particular recording, published by EMI as well as by the Russian label Melodiya, was out of print and difficult to find. My friend the music critic was totally against purchasing the Emerson Quartet’s box set, even though it was the Emerson’s playing of the complete Shostakovich cycle a few years ago that revealed to so many New Yorkers what masterpieces both quartets were. My friend’s message to me was very simple. Get the Borodin — don’t bother with the Fitzwilliam Quartet or the Kronos Quartet recordings, either.
Sleuthing, meanwhile, got me absolutely nowhere — until I realized that the answer had been staring at me in the face: the good old New York Public Library.
If you go to the Leo online database at nypl.org, a small miracle suddenly flashes on your screen. You can search for the recording of your choice and place a hold on it, the way I used to place holds on books in my college library.The NYPL will contact you either by mail or, better yet, by e-mail, once the item you’ve requested is available. And the miracle does not stop there: You can have the item shipped directly to the closest library branch near you, where it will wait for two weeks for you to pick it up. Once you’ve taken it out, you can return it to any other New York City Library branch.