GLINKA: Grand Sextet Originale; Brilliant Divertimento on Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”; TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartet No. 1 in D – Prazak Quartet + 2 – Praga Digitals

by | Mar 11, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

GLINKA: Grand Sextet Originale; Brilliant Divertimento on Bellini’s Opera “La Sonnambula”; TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 11 – Prazak Quartet + 2 –  Praga Digitals multichannel SACD 250 294, 72:15 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Though in many quarters Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) is considered the father of modern Russian music, I have always thought of him as somewhat of a phony in terms of a genuine Russian feeling. After all, his influences were almost exclusively Italian, especially Bellini, whom he met in the 1830s. At this time there was no real thought of using Russian folk tunes in his music, at least for the time being, and A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Luydmila were still a few years off. Some of the works of Bernhard Crusell, whom he had heard in his youth, remained ensconced in memory, and also played no small influence in his modest chamber output—only around ten works or so.

Though he was to feel disenchanted with Italy, and decided on a course to return to Russia and try to do for it what Bellini and Donizetti did for Italy—the beginnings of European nationalism in music—he was never to really shake the early training he received there, and we find only small hints of Russ that was to appear in a much more formidable manner in the works of The Five a few years later, who did indeed take Glinka as the model for their efforts. In the pieces on this disc, we are instead given models of classical grace and elegance spiced with future hints of what was to come, albeit in a rather concealed and contained way. The Sextet is almost, at least in part, a piano concerto, a dreamy exercise composed near Lake Como, and fully reflective of that magnificent landscape. The Divertimento is a flashy piano work, also in sextet form (two violins, viola, cello, bass) that is dominated by the composer’s newly found brilliance in writing virtuoso parts. None of this ever gets in the way of the inherent musicality of the work however, and Glinka’s skill and craftsmanship, well learned in his Italian sojourns, are on excellent display.

The Tchaikovsky thrusts us into another world altogether, one much more “Russian-driven,” and the 1871 St. Petersburg premiere was to be the first time a Russian composer tackled the ever-popular string quartet medium. It was a wild success, completely evident of the composer’s mastery of European form, only this time infused with a native spirit that gives the piece a darkness and energy more inclusive of Northern climes and Slavic sensibility.  And the middle movement took on a life of its own, often played with orchestral strings, the famous Andante cantabile. By any definition, the piece has attained canonical status in the chamber music repertory.

These performances are stunning in their energy and commitment; rarely have I heard the Tchaikovsky so radiantly set forth, and the Glinka works get their full due, perhaps even more. Praga’s sound is wide and encompassing, with good separation and depth. Hopefully they will give us the rest of the Tchaikovsky canon laced with more Glinka. This could be the beginning of an important series.

—Steven Ritter

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