Two Tchaikovsky quartets rife with passionate sincerity come to us from this British chamber ensemble.
TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11; String Quartet No. 3 in e-flat minor, Op. 30 – The Heath Quartet – Harmonia mundi HMU 907665, 66:24 (11/18/16) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
Tchaikovsky’s initiation into the string quartet medium begins in 1871, at the urging of Nikolay Rubinstein, who had organized a concert devoted to promoting Tchaikovsky’s works. Given the composer’s penchant for “German” forms – those Classical means of musical expression that conveyed a sense of cosmopolitan legitimacy – Tchaikovsky set to work assembling players from the St. Petersburg Conservatory who followed Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub in order to premier the D Major Quartet in March 1871. Despite the clear influences of Schubert, Haydn, and Beethoven, the outstanding second movement – Andante cantabile – takes the composer’s Russian heritage to heart, basing its tender progression on a Ukrainian folk song, “Sidel Vanya.”
The Heath Quartet (rec. December 2015) plays the D Major Quartet with studied devotion. The intimate syncopations of the opening Moderato e semplice enjoy a layered effect that has bequeathed the name “The Accordion” on its figurations. The plastic ease with which Tchaikovsky weaves his two themes in sonata-form attest to his early masterly of the medium favored by the Viennese models of Mozart and Schubert. The Heath apply mutes for the Andante cantabile, and the magical effect becomes quite endearing when violin Oliver Heath intones over pizzicatos and when cello Chris Murray joins the others in canon. The Scherzo (in d minor) offers a slickly-syncopated Russian dance, played “not too fast and with fire.” The Trio becomes quite hectic in the upper parts over a drone cello. The Allegro giusto finale indulges in folk idioms as well, with Heath’s first violin assuming a more concertante, virtuoso element. With some starts and stops written into the progression – and some handsome melodic kernels for the cello – the music manages to culminate in a whirlwind coda.
The motive for the elegiac String Quartet No. 3 of 1876 came by way of violinist Ferdinand Laub’s untimely death at age 43 in 1875. The opening Andante sostenuto establishes a mood of restless angst that the subsequent Allegro moderato transforms into an extended tempest of dotted rhythm and triplets. The fluid alternation of anguish and “symphonic” energies seems to borrow from late Schubert. The lachrymose violin melody bears hints of the later Souvenir de Florence. The agitation of the first movement carries over into the briskly executed Allegretto vivo e scherzando. The busy sixteenth notes suffer jabbing accents from sforzando chords spaced out among the four instruments. The Trio, however, allows viola Gary Pomeroy to lead us to some consolation. The testament to Laub occurs in the third movement Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto, a muted dirge with a sensibility of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. In the central section, the players pass along a sad melody in the major key to extol the lamented, fallen friend. Often, the solo violin and viola intone in the manner of a cantor against the tutti of the congregation. Tchaikovsky utilizes off-beat accents in the Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto, a rondo that never quite relieves the gloom of the funeral lament. The Heath have given us two Tchaikovsky quartets rife with passionate sincerity.