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Glazunov: String Quartets, Vol. 4 / Utrecht String Quartet

Glasunov / Utrecht String Quartet
Release Date: 08/16/2011 
Label:  Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog #: 6031239   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Alexander Glazunov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Utrecht String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GLAZUNOV String Quartet No. 6. 5 Novelettes Utrecht Str Qrt MDG 603 1239-2 (69:59)

Glazunov’s Sixth Quartet of 1921 is rarely recorded, and the reasons aren’t difficult to discover. The memorable, emotionally expressive themes of his earlier works in this genre are largely gone, replaced by material at once more chromatic (rather like his incomplete Ninth Symphony of 1910, available under Serebrier’s sympathetic baton on Warner Classics 2564 6890), and simpler, better suited Read more to the composer’s evolving ideas of development. The opening allegro is typical: symphonic in its expansiveness, though the standard tension/release of 19th-century symphonic thought has been replaced by an even-keeled, fantasia-like manipulation of motifs. The folk-like scherzo lacks the fanciful imagination that distinguishes so many of Glazunov’s essays in this vein; it could be another exercise in “doing Borodin” by a less skilled contemporary. By contrast, the Andante piangevole is an intimate, dense tapestry, more akin to elaborate tone poems for string orchestra such as Schoeck’s Sommernacht and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht . It amply repays hearing, but the most immediately attractive movement is the finale, in Glazunov’s favorite theme-and-variations format. The relatively short variations, presented as a passacaglia, intermingle relatively simple, direct material with concentrated, contrapuntally complex or rhythmically challenging ideas.

With the Five Novelettes , we jump back to 1886, a period when Glazunov was writing chamber music for the so-called “Fridays,” musical soirées hosted by the music publisher Mitrofan Belyayev. Dance elements predominate, and an easygoing imitation of various national styles. The broad lyricism of “Alla Spagnuola” sounds more Italianate than Spanish, while “Orientale” is oriental only in the sense that Prince Igor ’s Polovtsians were. The “Interludium in modo antico” is in the richly homophonic vein of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the lilting “Valse” is followed by a charming if conventionally Gypsy-like “All’Ungherese” finale. The work was a success upon its debut, and so it has remained since.

This is the fourth release in the Utrecht String Quartet’s traversal of Glazunov’s complete string quartets (with a few side journeys). I’ve reviewed two of their previous albums in the series: the String Quartets Nos. 3 and 5 and the String Quintet and Suite for String Quartet ( Fanfare 28:1 and 32:3, respectively). They’ve obviously studied and played these works for quite some time, but I find the Utrecht musicians overly reticent in the Sixth Quartet, a piece that needs more advocacy to score its points. Precisely this quality is provided in the old Shostakovich Quartet recording of 1975, last seen on Olympia 526. (Out of print, but you may be able to find it available from some sources.) The finale in particular gains from the Shostakovich Quartet’s greater variety of basic tempos in the variations, while they treat the intense chromaticism of the slow movement with warmer, more lyrical phrasing. Which isn’t to say that the Utrecht Quartet is cold or unvaried—just that the competition’s approach is less expressively neutral, more involved in a work whose subtleties must be sold.

There are numerous versions of the Novelettes to consider. That of the Shostakovich Quartet is again out of print, as is the Calvet Quartet, but there’s compensation in the form of a richly characterized 1950s reading by the Hollywood String Quartet (Testament 1061). Want something a bit more recent? I like the vibratoless drone effect the St. Petersburg String Quartet adds to the “Orientale” movement in its recording (Delos 3262), but they seem skittish, and I prefer overall the Utrecht’s sleek beauty of tone. They’re still a bit too straitlaced for my tastes in the “Interludio” and “All’Ungherese,” but if you want a digital version, there’s the one to get.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal


The Utrecht Quartet is making something of a speciality of the Russian repertoire and this latest volume in its Glazunov series joins Grechaninov (two volumes so far) and Tchaikovsky in its highly absorbing trawl. Not that it has ignored territory very much closer to home; try its discs of Robert de Roos and Lex van Delden, for instance.

The Utrecht and its label MDG are taking a crabwise approach to Glazunov. I reviewed the very first volume favourably, but not for them a chronological survey; instead the opening salvo brought the third and fifth quartets, volume 2 brought the second and fourth; then the third disc veered off entirely to the Op.35 Suite and the Op.39 Quintet. With this volume however we are back on track with the big Sixth and the evergreen Novelettes.

The Sixth Quartet was written in 1921. It’s a big forty minute work, quasi-symphonic in places and dense in texture, especially in the first movement when you could be forgiven for thinking it was a quintet. This chamber orchestral quality is well conveyed by the Utrecht who seemingly revels in its strong and vital structure. By contrast the Intermezzo is light-hearted, asymmetrical and engaging whilst the slow movement is an Andante piangevole and nicely lyrical. The finale is a theme and variations. Its sound world varies from being a touch ecclesiastical in places to revealing the influence of Dvorák and Tchaikovsky. The folkloric and pious panels that frank the finale are clever, though very stop-start. This is a finely played work, though I can’t claim that it’s a masterpiece of the chamber repertoire.

The Novelettes reveal what the Quartet lacks; really distinctive tunes and a concise approach to structure and to harmony. Quite a few groups have essayed the complete set of five, but I’d drawn attention to the Fine Arts on Naxos [8.570256] who offer a diametrically opposed kind of performance. Where the Utrecht is light of bow pressure, the Fine Arts dig in powerfully. The way best to appreciate these differing aesthetic approaches is to contrast the simplicity of phrasing and restrained vibrato of the Utrecht in the Interludium with the Fine Arts’s muscular intensity. Or indeed the quite fleet, light-on-their-feet Utrecht’s All’Ungherese finale with the Fine Art’s powerful but slower approach.

Once again I’m taken by the Utrecht approach. I think they have reached a fine entente with Glazunov throughout the four volumes, and with a good recording I’d be happy to recommend them.

-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 6 in B flat major, Op. 106 by Alexander Glazunov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Utrecht String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1921; USSR 
Novelettes (5) for String Quartet, Op. 15 by Alexander Glazunov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Utrecht String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1886; Russia 

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