Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2
Utrecht Str Qrt
MDG 903 1575 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 63:43)
It is fortuitous indeed that Tchaikovsky, unable to mount a concert of larger works because of finances and the impossibility of hiring an orchestra, decided instead to turn to
a smaller format for inclusion in a concert of his own works in 1871. His First String Quartet, tossed off rather quickly, was not only the highlight of the concert but made a substantial impression upon all the attendees, including friend and mentor Nicolai Rubinstein. In 1876, Tolstoy himself heard it and was said to have wept, the lovely second movement Andante cantabile being irresistible to a Russian soul with its great pathos and simplicity. Tchaikovsky first heard the melody when he was 29, sung by a carpenter in the village of Kamenka. Ever since, its poignant phrases have appeared in his most enduring compositions, whether as part of the Quartet or arranged alone for string orchestra.
The Second Quartet is a chewier piece of taffy. With the opening chromaticism of the first movement we encounter a B? unresolved against an A?, with a lower G? entering before the resolution takes place. Its thorniness turns some listeners off, especially those more seduced by the easier and far more accessible op. 11. But this F-Major work has many rewards, and at the time, the composer thought it the very best thing he had accomplished yet; the unstable rhythms and curiously obtuse harmonies loom only long enough to cast a wonderfully profound spell over the entire work. The slow movement, Andante ma non tanto, is perhaps the emotional heart of the piece, plumbing the depths of heartfelt tragedy as only Tchaikovsky can do.
Though there are about 20-odd recordings of Quartet No. 1 on the market—hardly ignored—and fewer of the other two, including the quartet movement in B? from his student years, these pieces are not the first ones brought to mind when considering the literature, and this is a shame. All three are actually spectacular examples of superb quartet writing, and more listeners should be acquainted with them. In my own case, I have been disappointed with virtually every recording I have heard. Only the two-disc set from Teldec (1993) of the Borodin Quartet playing all three works, the fragment, and the String Sextet (“Souvenir of Florence”) have given me any sense of hope that the recorded legacy of the pieces will have a substantial representation, though I did hear that the St. Lawrence String Quartet on EMI gives a hefty rendition of Nos. 1 and 3 (I have not heard these, however). Jerry Dubins was quite profuse in his praise of the DVD set on Medici Arts (
32:5) of these same Borodins—though reconstituted—of Nos. 1 and 2 along with the Shostakovich 3 and 8.
But I can report that this new recording—the first volume of a promised complete set from the gloriously virtuosic Utrecht String Quartet—appears to be the dream interpretation that these quartets have been waiting for. The Utrechts are more energetic than the Borodin players, though only marginally faster in overall timing, and they don’t sport the darker and more subtly burnished sound that the Russians give to different parts of this music. But Tchaikovsky, while Russian in soul, was also an internationalist who adored Mozart, and wrote music that easily transcends his own nationality. The Utrecht has found the path to the heart of this music and everything comes out right. Even the Andante cantabile is passionate and beautiful, while lacking any sort of enhanced sorrow that masquerades as Russian sentiment. These are benchmark readings of the highest quality in super surround sound, and I can’t wait for the completion. This is the first Want List candidate of the New Year.
FANFARE: Steven E. Ritter
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