GLAZUNOV: String Quartet No. 3 in G Major, Op. 26 “Slavonic”; Idyll for French Horn and String Quartet; String Quartet No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 64 – Zemlinsky Quartet/ Christoph Ess, horn – Praga PRD 250281, 68:51 [Distr. By Harmonia mundi] ****:
From the outset of the 1888 “Slavonic” Quartet (rec. 4-5 November 2011) by the Zemlinsky Quartet, we enter happily into the throes of a masterful evocation of Russian energies spliced to the academic German forms of classical chamber music. While the epithet “Slavonic” derives from the introduction of a Ukrainian dance specifically into the final movement, the mazurka rhythm of the third movement Allegretto proves no less infectious. The opening movement, originally a “Moderato in F Major,” had appeared a bit earlier, in 1886. Typically, Glazunov melds Russian lyric power and traditional sonata-form while remaining graciously melodious. The rasping rustic energy of the Finale: Une fete slave hearkens to Smetana’s “From My Life” Quartet for seamless integration of folk materials into a personal statement of earthy brio and the joy of existence. Violinists Frantisek Soucek and Petr Strizek bask in their musical pairing; while Vladimir Fortin’s sturdy cello, in concert with viola Petr Holman, provides a decisive hurdy-gurdy ethos to the elated proceedings that conclude with a martial apotheosis.
Glazunov was a youthful twenty-one-years of age when he composed his Idyll for French Horn and String Quartet (1884).  Christoph Ess of the Bamberg Symphony does the brass honors in this natural vehicle for ensemble, fashioned on lines we know from Dvorak’s sunny catalogue, like his Romance, Op. 11. Viola pairs nicely with the French horn, then the full quartet introduces a cantering ostinato over which the French horn intones a mountain serenade. A thoroughly charming pastoral, the unearthing of this gently luminous piece here in 2011 makes us wish the late Dennis Brain had immortalized it with his peerless talent.
The A Minor Quartet No. 4 (1894; rec. 4-6 November 2011) of Glazunov might nod to both Brahms and Taneyev for its tight structure and employment of counterpoint as a procedure to close the first movement Allegro.  Rather through-composed with a leitmotif in 2/2, the first movement reveals a dark, Slavic chromaticism that Glazunov attributed to “the impression left by dark memories,” likely an allusion to the death of Peter Tchaikovsky in 1893. The development section enjoys, via group double stops, a distinctly symphonic sound.   The Andante transforms the original motif from the first movement into a somber meditation for first violin and “choral” support. The cello and viola add a tender extension. Violin I again leads the secondary melody, a rather Brahmsian idea in the midst of what might pass for Dvorak or Schubert, especially in the viola part.  The Scherzo: vivace dominates the quartet for sheer, explosive expression, the first violin figures reminiscent of the Borodin D Major Quartet, even more hectic and spirited in the da capo. The Trio is all diaphanous Mendelssohn with a lovely Russian cantilena in the low strings then transferred to the first violin.  The Finale: Allegro takes a page from Haydn’s craft, assigning to the central section a theme and variations.  The main section, highly contrapuntal, features a bravura first violin string line that encourages strong chordal figures in the manner of martial and lyrical impulses, the latter almost a Slavic lullaby. The Zemlinsky Quartet negotiates all three works with stylistic vigor, a technical security, and an elastic brilliance to insure these performances remain the rule for other ensembles to emulate. Sound engineering by Jan Izicar is top notch.
—Gary Lemco