TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartets No.1, Op. 11 & No. 2, Op. 22 – Utrecht String Quartet – MD&G

by | Sep 22, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartets Vol. 1 = No.1, Op. 11 & No. 2, Op. 22 – Utrecht String Quartet – MD&G multichannel & 2+2+2 SACD MDG 903 1575-6, 63:43 [Distr. by Koch] – Performance ***** Recording *****:

Tchaikovsky is much loved for the ballets, symphonies, the last three in particular, the first piano concerto, violin concerto and two overtures, 1812 and Romeo and Juliet. Eugene Onegin remains popular in the opera house, and aspiring pianists come across his suite “The Seasons”. There is substantially more to Tchaikovsky than these few works, among them about a dozen chamber and instrumental pieces which don’t attract quite the same attention.

The string quartets are highly accomplished works, well worth investigating by those who have not yet done so, and as good a place to start as any is with this fine new recording from MD&G, Volume 1 of the complete string quartets, of which there are three numbered and an earlier unnumbered one. Tchaikovsky began writing String Quartet No.1 in 1871; at this time, over thirty years old, he was not yet that well-known, though he had already completed the First Symphony.  The quartet is in four movements, a substantial first one, mostly gentle and lyrical but containing passionate climaxes. The second will be well-known from other arrangements – the “Andante cantabile” – and here receives a performance of unforced simplicity much to its benefit.  This mournful melody was heard by the composer being sung by a craftsman working in a house in 1869.  After a short scherzo which shows off the Utrecht players’ excellent ensemble, the last movement dances with light feet. This work was received very well indeed at its first performance in Moscow in 1871.

The second quartet followed a few years later, after the Second Symphony, and was written at the end of 1873 and in early 1874. This work shows even more of Tchaikovsky’s character, with episodes of pain and tragedy mingling with others of energy, hope and light-heartedness.  The first movement needs the clear texture it gets from the Utrecht players if the chromatic dissonance is not to become muddy. While the scherzo is a jolly affair, the substantial slow movement plumbs the composer’s darkest moods. The short last movement is energetic and positive, with interesting fugal writing.

The Utrecht String Quartet really does shine in these works; textures are crystal-clear and tempi well-chosen. They are rewarded with a very fine recording by MD&G, sounding superb both in stereo and through the multichannel recording, and made in an acoustic most suitable for the music, not too dry and not too wet.  Rear channels provide location ambience.  (I’m not set up for the proper 2+2+2 speaker assignments.] Documentation is up to MD&G’s usual high standard, with an interesting essay by Paul Mertens. This SACD is well worth setting alongside the Borodin Quartet’s recording on Chandos; I look forward very much to hearing the second volume.

— Peter Joelson

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