TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11; String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 22; String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 30; String Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70 “Souvenir de Florence” – The IPO Richter String Quartet/ Vladislav Krasnov, viola/ Kirill Mihanovsky, cello – Helicon 02-9639 (2 CDs) 65:00; 72:13 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Whenever the subject of Tchaikovsky’s chamber music arises, we feel a kind of condescension set in, warranted or not, that Tchaikovsky felt uncomfortable with the medium, excepting his one acknowledged masterpiece, his 1871 String Quartet No. 1 in D Major. Too often, Tchaikovsky concedes his naturally passionate and effusive nature to the “German” sense of formal structure and polyphonic procedures, a means of “legitimizing” his otherwise grand, even symphonic urgency of expression. The musicians who form the Israel Philharmonic Richter Quartet (founded 2006) obviously do not share the obverse his criticisms of Tchaikovsky that lament his lack of discipline, his lack of restraint, weaknesses of form, and awkward textures and part writing. In fact, they deliver an integral set of quartets that stands to establish a high bar for execution and sensitive interpretation of this composer’s oeuvre.
The D Major Quartet, subtitled “The Accordion” due to its opening sonorities in an unusual 9/8, proceeds according to the rules of sonata-form, subdividing the main theme into luxuriant kernels that often explode contrapuntally. The densely syncopated mix moves to a brilliant coda in rapid D Major chords that contains a scale that Berlioz used in Un Bal. Legend has it that Tchaikovsky utilized a Ukrainian folk tune for his famous Andante cantabile movement, a dumka moment that moved epic writer Leo Tolstoy to tears. Viola Dmitry Ratush makes his own points with the gentle song, soon played in muted fashion by the ensemble. The Scherzo: Allegro non tanto e con fuoco treats us to a heavily accented peasant dance that the IPO relish with vivacious and sharp-edged gestures, often unisono and rhythmically askew. Cellist Felix Nemirovsky can indulge his broad tone with unbuttoned fire. The Finale: Allegro gusto reveals a certain dignity and poise in the course of its nationalistic rondo-sonata form that takes a page from Haydn.
For more fervently blatant emotionalism in Tchaikovsky, we need only audition his 1874 String Quartet in F Major, Op. 22. Tchaikovsky himself felt that the music “flowed out of me. . . easily and simply. I wrote it almost in one sitting.” The scale of the first movement Adagio; Moderato assai proves quite expansive, again moving to some potent chords unisono or with concertante violin that might well have accommodated the full orchestra. The Adagio opening of the quartet reminds many of the chromatic opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, K. 465. Ilya Konovalov’s violin and Dmitry Ratush’s viola diverge early, and the ensuing development only increases the contrary motion. Despite the quicker pace of the Moderato assai portion of the first movement, the often contrapuntal mood remains relatively dark. The Scherzo features shifting rhythms and a trio section with an asymmetrical, offbeat waltz of considerable intensity from the IPO ensemble. An emotionally weighty, even psychologically naked, movement of sometimes symphonic proportions, the Andante ma non tanto finds unity in its recurring lament. The fugal finale has a rondo-like theme that grows more lively with each repeat and also provides the material for the exultant coda to conclude a movement of essentially classical means.
The premature death of violinist Ferdinand Laub in 1875 inspired Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor, begun in Paris and completed in Moscow, early 1876. The quality of the broad, histrionic writing proves both symphonic and operatic in character. The solo violin appropriately leads the Andante sostenuto, a funeral march and momento mori for Laub. The Allegro moderato section becomes a valse triste that includes a triplet figure handled like a Chopin mazurka, deviously suggesting 2/4. The Konovalov-Nemirovsky combination dominates the valedictory affect, itself broken and wispy, fragments and shards of poignant emotion that often recall late Beethoven. With the reprise of the funeral march, Ratush’s viola and Nemirovsky’s cello have inscribed the lament on our souls.
The outer sections of the duple meter Scherzo: Allegretto vivo e scherzando exemplify the composer’s love for Russian dances, while the middle section exploit’s the IPO capacity for Tchaikovsky’s melancholia. The heart of the quartet, Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto, opening with dissonances and then expanding to a mighty psalmody taken from the Russian liturgy, likely inspired by Tchaikovsky’s work on his Chrysostom study contemporaneously. The IPO players accomplish no mean feat of symphonic sonority in this movement. The last movement worried Tchaikovsky, its Allegro non troppo e risoluto too lightweight to counter the gravity of the slower movements. The Andante returns prior to the energized coda, in the course of which Tchaikovsky, a la Schumann or Beethoven, has inscribed the F-E-D-A to immortalize his late friend’s anagram into this imposing score.
For the marvelous string sextet Souvenir de Florence (1890; rev. 1892), Vladislav Krasnov and Kirill Mihanovsky join the IPO Richter ensemble, and their energy proves immediately radiant. Florence had been Tchaikovsky’s preferred vacation spot, and he had taken time there for his opera The Queen of Spades while placing the sextet on hold. The IPO confirm that Russian more than Italy dominates the creative ethos throughout, though a sharp ear might pick a reference to Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet in the guitar-evocation of the Adagio cantabile. The third movement has the ensemble actively sporting a Russian folk song once more. The first movement, however, virtually explodes with innate gusty lyricism, a fund of counterpoint almost a rival to Brahms in its symphonic character. A charming spirit of national celebration suffuses the finale, and we have come to know second violin Shmuel Glaser for his own merits. Recorded 12-15 September 2010 in the Frederic Mann Auditorium, Tel-Aviv, this entire set has restored these Tchaikovsky chamber works to their celebrity status.
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