Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: Nos. 1, 2.
String Quartet No. 1
LIGIA 302227 (64:55)
When this CD started playing, all I thought to myself, was, “Oh no, here we go again: yet another chamber group that takes a miserable, depressed view toward Russian music.” That was because the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s first quartet is played in a style so droopy and overladen with heart-on-the-sleeve string sobbing
that I thought it would never end. But then comes the second movement, the scherzo, and things pick up considerably. Moreover, when the quartet moves into the Tchaikovsky piece, its entire style seems to morph into a light, clean, bright sound (it almost sounds like straight tone or at least greatly reduced vibrato) and an approach to the music much like the Kroll or Tokyo quartets.
Indeed, I am absolutely enthralled by both the Élysée Quartet’s style and the Tchaikovsky piece as a composition. Here is a very different Tchaikovsky, certainly much more interesting in terms of compositional style as well as originality of musical thought and soundness of construction, than his piano sonata. If you did not know this piece beforehand, and I played it for you in a blindfold test, you might think it was a quartet by a contemporary of Brahms (which is essentially true), but not necessarily by a Russian, even though there are characteristic Slavic harmonies in the second movement. Yes, if you were astute enough you might guess Tchaikovsky, but I don’t think he would be your first guess. Even though, as mentioned, the second movement uses some typical Slavic chord changes (and, in the middle section, a few Russian melodic fragments), the music has an almost classical balance that harks back to such composers as Mendelssohn. The Élysée Quartet plays it with absolutely extraordinary sensitivity and poise.
The scherzo, while also somewhat Russian, has the type of minor-key melody (alternated with major key passages) that could almost pass for gypsy or Jewish themes. Here Tchaikovsky is particularly imaginative in his use of rhythmic as well as melodic variants, sometimes subtly subdividing the beat in interesting ways. In the final movement, Tchaikovsky plays further with rhythm, presenting his theme in short fragments before taking off into a brilliant second theme and development section of outstanding creativity, then brings back the stop-start quality for a brief, mysterious passage before the final mad rush to the finish. The Élysée Quartet plays all of this with exceptional technique but, more importantly, an unerring sense of drama.
Then we reach the second Rachmaninoff piece and again, in the slow introduction, the ensemble plays with that same kind of melancholy droop as in his first quartet. They brighten up considerably for the
section, and play with superb crispness and drive, but again fall into a cry-in-your-vodka mood for the Andante. Does the score really state or suggest such a dismal interpretation? It’s possible; I haven’t seen it. But I don’t like the music played in this fashion.
A split decision, then, and one that you will have to balance for yourself. If your expectation in Russian music, particularly Rachmaninoff, tends toward an ultra-emotional and somewhat lachrymose style, you will enjoy the entire CD, but I only really like the Tchaikovsky quartet in whole and the Rachmaninoff pieces in part. One final word: It isn’t often nowadays that we hear sonics that tend toward edginess, but these do, and in fact the CD is so loudly recorded (in addition to a bit too forward) that I had to keep turning my volume control down during the first minute or two to bring it to a level that did not hurt my ears.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 1 (unfinished) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Written: 1889; Russia
Venue: Villennes-sur-Seine, France
Length: 12 Minutes 8 Secs.
Quartet for Strings no 2 (unfinished) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Written: ?1896; Russia
Venue: Villennes-sur-Seine, France
Length: 21 Minutes 2 Secs.
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