“Thème russe” – Kuss Quartet – Onyx

by | Jun 7, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

“Thème russe” [TrackList follows] – Kuss Quartet – Onyx 4090, 73:35 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
The idea behind this album is to explore the tensions between Russian musical nationalism and the Western tradition in music as represented by that most sophisticated and most Western of genres, the string quartet. Indeed, except for the strain of primitivism in Stravinsky’s Concertino of 1920, most of this music sounds as urbane and rarefied as a Mendelssohn or Brahms quartet. That includes the Variations on a Russian Folk Song (1898) to which a committee of nine composers, most of them associated closely with the cause of Russian nationalism, contributed. Even the theme itself, according to the notes to this recording, is ersatz, actually penned by Rimsky-Korsakov, who also contributed the bouncy Allegro fourth variation. Among the other composers, some well known and some not even musical footnotes outside of Russia, two provide learned very Western treatments: a canon (Anatoly Liadov) and a fugato (Alexander Winkler). And despite the many cooks involved in this musical concoction, it presents a unified and seamless front—it’s very attractive music as well.
The Kuss Quartet might have chosen to include one of the more idiomatically Russian (and spirited) quartets by Borodin, but instead they’ve chosen to give us Tchaikovsky’s gentle Quartet No. 1 with its much-loved Andante cantabile slow movement. Tchaikovsky did use an actual folk song from the Ukraine in the first movement, but the other ripely Romantic melodies, though they may have a Russian flavor to them, are all of Tchaikovsky’s own invention. Just so, in the pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young—originally for piano but arranged for string quartet by violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, founder of the Borodin Quartet—the composer hijacks a couple of Russian melodies, including Kamarinskya, made famous by Glinka. But the rest sounds like Tchaikovsky is taking up where Schumann left off some thirty years before with his own Album for the Young.
The two refreshing surprises in the midst of all this Russian High Romanticism is Stravinsky’s tart little Concertino, which has some of the near-savage rhythmic energy of his pre-war music but which is tempered by his newly adopted neo-Classicism, with its tight compositional logic and adherence to established forms. Then there is Alfred Schnittke’s strange (isn’t all his music?) tribute to Stravinsky. Like the Concertino, Schnittke’s piece is a balancing act, a sad keening bit of musical expressiveness that the composer filters through a learned form that’s been around since the late Middle Ages, the canon.
All of this makes for some stimulating as well as downright enjoyable listening. The Russian theme of the album seems to keep the Kuss Quartet of Berlin focused; this is much more successful than their previous recording for Onyx, which featured quartets by Schubert and Berg. It sounded as though some of Berg’s Expressionism found its way into the Kuss’s performance of the Schubert Quartet No. 15, which received a slowish, mannered performance. No such problems here: the Kuss Quartet is in its element throughout. Thème russe is a constant delight, and I highly recommend it.
TrackList:
Variations on a Russian Folk Song for String Quartet by multiple composers =
Nikolai Artsybuschev: Var. 1, Allegretto
Scriabin: Var. 2, Allegretto
Glazunov: Var. 3, Andantino
Rimksy-Korsakov: Var. 4, Allegro
Liadov: Var. 5, Canon. Adagio
Jazeps Vitols: Var. 6, Allegretto
Felix Blumenfeld: Var. 7, Allegro
Victor Ewald: Var. 8, Andante cantiabile
Alexander Winkler: Var. 9, Fugato: Allegro
Nikolai Sokolov: Var. 10, Finale. Allegro
Tchaikovsky: Album for the Young (arr. Rostislav Dubinsky): Russian Song
Stravinsky: Concertino
Schnittke: Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky
Tchaikovsky: Album for the Young (arr. Rostislav Dubinsky): Old French Song; Mama; The Hobby Horse; March of the Wooden Soldiers; The Sick Doll; The Doll’s Funeral; The Witch; Sweet Dreams; Kamarinskaya
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 11
—Lee Passarella

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