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Afanasiev, Borodin, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-korsakov: String Quartets / Leipzig String Quartet


Release Date: 09/11/2012 
Label:  Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog #: 3071758  
Composer:  Nikolai AfanasievNikolai Rimsky-KorsakovSergei RachmaninovAlexander Borodin
Performer:  Ivo BauerStefan ArzbergerTilman BuningMatthias Moosdorf
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



RUSSIAN STRING QUARTETS Leipzig Str Qrt MDG 307 1758-2 (76:56)


AFANASIEV String Quartet, “Volga.” RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Chorale and Variations. Fugue, “In the Monastery.” RACHMANINOFF Romanze and Scherzo. BORODIN String Quartet No. 2
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This release couples three little-known works with one of the most familiar (and best) chamber works to emerge from 19th century Russia. In one case, the composer also is very obscure, although he enjoyed a long career and had some success during his lifetime. Nikolai Iakovlevich Afanasiev (1821-1898) received musical training from his violinist father but had no formal training in composition, none being available in Russia at the time. He performed as a violinist and conductor, including a stint as concert master of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. He is said to have written 12 string quartets, as well as symphonies, concertos, and several operas, including one based on the same Gogol story set by Tchaikovsky in Cherevichki and Rimsky-Korsakov in Christmas Eve , but much of his music remains unpublished. His “Volga” String Quartet was one of his most successful works, receiving a prize from the Russian Musical Society in 1860. Its use of Russian folk material guarantees a substantial level of melodic interest, but the attempts at thematic development seem tentative. The most pleasing of its four movements is unfortunately the shortest, the Allegretto second movement, where engaging melody combines with lively, dance-like rhythm and the simple tripartite form doesn’t tax the composer’s technical abilities. In that movement there is a motif that is curiously similar to the one associated with the witch Ježibaba in Dvo?ák’s Rusalka , written 40 years later. Another melody strongly suggestive of Dvo?ák occurs in the final movement.


As I noted in my review of his 1897 Piano Trio (35:6), Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t think much of himself as a composer of chamber music, having concluded, after leaving that work unfinished, that “chamber music is not my area.” The two pieces on this disc date from an earlier period but suggest a similar discomfort with the chamber-music medium. Rimsky composed his String Quartet, No. 2, “On Russian Themes,” in 1878-79 but was dissatisfied with it and withheld it from publication. He subsequently reworked the first three movements into his Sinfonietta on Russian Themes, op. 31, leaving the fugal final movement, In the Monastery , as a stand-alone piece in its original form. The notes for this recording claim that he also reused the material from this movement in Sadko , but I don’t hear anything that I recognize as being in that opera. I don’t know what the tempo marking is for this piece, but it sounds to me like it would benefit from a quicker pace than that employed by the Leipzig players. The other Rimsky piece, Chorale and Variations, dates from 1885 and lasts less than five minutes. It is another neobaroque exercise that may have been part of Rimsky’s self-instruction in compositional technique.


Unlike Rimsky, Borodin and Rachmaninoff had a genuine affinity for chamber music, as is evidenced in Rachmaninoff’s case especially by his ravishing Cello Sonata. The two quartet movements offered here date from 1889, during the composer’s student years at the Moscow Conservatory. Even as a student, Rachmaninoff was capable of writing music of lasting value, for instance, his one-act opera Aleko . The quartet movements, however, strike me as being more at the apprentice level. The sweetly lyrical, rather Tchaikovskian Romanze is pleasing if a bit repetitious. The Scherzo seems somewhat thin in terms of invention and development. The Leipzig performances are straightforward and matter-of-fact, perhaps too much so. More expressivity and shaping might make a better case for these pieces.


I am quite taken, however, with the Leipzig players’ reading of Borodin’s familiar quartet, the one truly accomplished work on the disc. Here the balance among the instruments is finely judged, textures are clear, detail is firmly etched, and continuity of line is consistently maintained. Tempos are well integrated and for the most part firmly sustained, but with subtle application of rubato. The Leipzig players take a broader approach in the outer movements than the Borodin or Pražák Quartets (Chandos and Praga, respectively). After an unusually pensive, lyrical, and serene first movement, the Scherzo is quick but graceful. The famous Notturno flows appealingly at a tempo that seems ideal, and an expansive finale concludes the work in a manner consistent with the overall conception.


This recording benefits from open and detailed sound, a realistic image, and an extended frequency range. The cello’s contributions register with gratifying solidity and impact. On my system at least, the sound can also be a touch abrasive at higher dynamic levels.


I can recommend this release for its fine and distinctive performance of the Borodin work. In addition, it will be of interest to those wishing to explore the byways of Russian chamber music, although the other works are not of great significance. Other recordings exist of the Rimsky and Rachmaninoff pieces, but I haven’t heard them. Afanasiev is otherwise unrepresented in the catalog, and from a historical standpoint it is valuable to have him added to it.


FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

1. Quartet for Strings by Nikolai Afanasiev
Performer:  Ivo Bauer (Viola), Stefan Arzberger (Violin), Tilman Buning (Violin),
Matthias Moosdorf (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
2. Variations (4) for String Quartet on a Chorale in G minor by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Performer:  Ivo Bauer (Viola), Stefan Arzberger (Violin), Tilman Buning (Violin),
Matthias Moosdorf (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1885; Russia 
3. Quartet for Strings on Russian Themes: 4th movement, At the Monastery by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Performer:  Ivo Bauer (Viola), Stefan Arzberger (Violin), Tilman Buning (Violin),
Matthias Moosdorf (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878-1879; Russia 
4. Quartet for Strings no 1 (unfinished) by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Ivo Bauer (Viola), Stefan Arzberger (Violin), Tilman Buning (Violin),
Matthias Moosdorf (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1889; Russia 
5. Quartet for Strings no 2 in D major by Alexander Borodin
Performer:  Ivo Bauer (Viola), Stefan Arzberger (Violin), Tilman Buning (Violin),
Matthias Moosdorf (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1881; Russia 

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