TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11; Quartet Movement in B-flat Major, Op. posth.; Souvenir de Florence – Sextet, Op. 70 – Meccore String Quartet/ Isabel Charisius, viola/ Valentin Erben, cello – SACD MDG 903 2091-6, 77:47 (11/16/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The Polish chamber ensemble Meccore String Quartet—Wojciech Koprowski, and Aleksandra Bryla, violins; Michal Bryla, viola; Karol Marianoswki, cello—debuted in 2007, having been tutored by the Camerata Quartet and the Artemis Quartet. Their Grieg received considerable praise, and here (January, May 2018) they engage the music of Tchaikovsky. For the 1890 string sextet, Isabel Charisius and Valentin Erben of the Alban Berg Quarett join them.

The 1871 String Quartet in D Major meant to be included in a concert of the Moscow Charitable Society. Tchaikovsky introduces the novelty of his melodic thinking with a 9/8 rhythm over which the pulsating, syncopated theme proceeds dolce, piano, semplice.  The sonata-form features a passionate development section, of which Meccore makes plastic and dramatic. The world-famous Andante cantabile in B-flat Major—putatively first heard by Tchaikovsky in 1869 in the form of a carpenter’s song—is reputed to have brought tears to Tolstoy. The secondary tune derives its energy from folk music, and the music proceeds in polyphonic texture. The middle section serves as a nocturne. The cello’s chromatic bass line has its own magic. For the da capo, he use of close imitation and intervals in contrary motion proves mesmeric. Tchaikovsky sets his Scherzo in D minor, but it soon skips—in the trio section—into the B-flat of the second movement. Lively and dance-like throughout, the music imparts a lusty, earthy energy. The Meccore impart a razor-sharp intonation in this movement, driving the momentum with an acerbic panache. The Allegro giusto finale opens with D Major verve, moving to a second subject announced by violist Michal Bryla. The lavish cello part as executed by Karol Marianowski, has a grand beauty. Tchaikovsky works out his sonata form with an unusual return to the key of D minor before hastening, Allegro vivace, to a busily triumphant conclusion.

The Meccore include a student piece by Tchaikovsky, his quarter-hour Quartet movement in B-flat from 1865. The movement divides into three sections: Adagio misterioso, Allegro con moto, and Adagio, its main theme a kind of Ukrainian chorale. The development, including a healthy concertante part for violin, viola, and cello, likely finds a model in Beethoven, whom Tchaikovsky admired. The folk element of the Allegro con moto soon demonstrates Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous compulsion to polyphony, as well as his gift for cross-rhythms. Tchaikovsky splits his upper and lower voices to achieve a luxurious antiphon that could easily mirror his liturgical thinking.

Tchaikovsky Portrait

Peter Tchaikovsky

The 1890-1892 Souvenir de Florence found its inspiration in the Italian villa of Nadezhda von Meck, the composer’s patroness. While working on and completing his opera, The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky incorporated the character Herman’s answer to the Countess as a unifying motif in the first movement, a fiery Allegro con spirito in D minor,  Tchaikovsky had been insistent on composing a sextet that would exploit six-part writing while at the same time capturing the Italian bel canto that had impressed him years before when composing his Italian Caprice. The opening, sonata-rondo movement projects what Tchaikovsky designates as “fire and animation,” especially hurtling forth from first violin Wojciech Koprowski. The lyrical “Herman” motif provides the matter for the extended development section. The momentum increases to a palpable frenzy, working the opening material to a manic coda that ends with the group’s fortissimo.

The second movement Adagio cantabile e con moto, presents a violin aria in D Major over a virtual “guitar” accompaniment. The viola and cello follow suit, joining the aria in the form of duets. The middle section modulates into the tonic minor to create a nocturne—perhaps colored by a touché of Mendelssohn—of symphonic proportions. The heavy drone element in the bass line suggests a rustic but inspired song as elevated as it proves mysterious. The da capo combines the lyric and nocturnal energies, a dark swan song to Tchaikovsky’s love of the chamber music medium. The Scherzo leaves the Italian environs for Russia, here in the form of an Allegretto moderato in A minor, a song from the steppe that breaks out in symphonic energies. The unison passages assume the sonority of a Russian chorus or balalaika ensemble. The central section posits a dazzling combination of spiccato and pizzicato effects that soon act in syncopation with the galloping song.   The layered filigree quite overwhelms us, as does Tchaikovsky’s serene skill in harmonized part-writing. Tchaikovsky reverts to sonata-form for his Allegro vivace finale, Ukrainian dance in D minor that soon yields to the composer’s penchant for counterpoint, to “prove” his worthiness according to German taste. The six-part fugue converts to a double fugue in (Mozart’s) best style, given Tchaikovsky’s desire to fill the hall with a Russian bacchanal on a par with his moment in the Manfred Symphony.  At once learned and texturally brilliant, the score betrays none of the self-destructive impulses or weltschmerz that would claim his consciousness in what remained of his life. The sheer fluency and emotional exuberance of this rendition has been vividly captured for us by the production team of Werner Dabringhaus, Reimund Grimm, and Friedrich Wilhelm Roedding.

—Gary Lemco