Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2. Piano Quintet
Ying Qrt; Adam Neiman (pn)
SONO LUMINUS 92143 (76:56)
Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 1 appeared in 1888, six years after he graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory, and immediately joined the Moscow Conservatory as professor of harmony and counterpoint. (The requirements were much lighter at the time, in a culture where classical music was essentially viewed as a new Russian art form, earlier isolated musicians such as Dmitri Bortniansky, Yevstigni
Fomin, and Mikhail Glinka notwithstanding.) It reveals the pronounced influence of Tchaikovsky, who became a mentor and friend of his younger colleague. Not always to the good, either, as the first and third movements meander pleasantly with little of distinction to say and less energy to convey it, all much in Tchaikovsky’s worst manner. The
is better, a simple, lyrical song whose charm lies in its rich accompanying harmonies, while a central section nods perfunctorily at counterpoint. The finale is by far the best thing in the work, a theme and variations (a form that, like Glazunov, Arensky excelled at) of a very Russian cast. The variations reveal the art and unpredictability of which the composer was master.
The Second Quartet followed the first by 12 years, and exists as a complete work in two versions: one for the standard lineup of two violins, viola, and cello, and one for violin, viola, and two cellos. They are musically identical, and were presumably composed to prove a point—not for the first time, since Arensky was a contrarian who would go out of his way to do something when someone else said it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done. (Tchaikovsky once reproached him for his occasional employment of unusual meters, citing the 5/4 finale to his Piano Concerto. Arensky immediately responded by composing several further works with similar metrical irregularities.) It is a more striking and imaginative work than the previous quartet. The first movement attempts the same frequent shifts of effect, textures, and harmony as its predecessor, but with superior thematic material, if with no greater ability to weld its disparate parts together. It is followed by only one other movement, a large-scale (17:28, in this reading) theme and variations on a Tchaikovsky song. With a lengthier theme that supplied more elements to vary, Arensky achieves as much as he had in the first quartet, but on a more ambitious scale. If a couple of the variations, such as the fifth, are little more than ornamentation, the overall result is successful.
The Piano Quintet appeared in 1900. Schumann’s Florestan is prominent in its opening movement, while another group of variations makes its appearance immediately afterward. As such, it’s an
set, a rarity in Russian music, and an unabashedly sentimental, Tchaikovsky-like set, too. The scherzo is perfunctory, but the finale is more Arensky contrarianism: a 3:31 movement of which the first 2:47 consists of a stern contrapuntal prelude, leading to a fast and otherwise undistinguished reprise of the Schumann-like theme that opened the quartet.
The Ying Quartet started life in 1988 with four Winnetka, Illinois, siblings who all studied at the Eastman School of Music. When first violinist Timothy left in 2009, Frank Huang took over the chair, and when he left the following year to become the Houston Symphony’s concertmaster, Ayano Ninomiya became first violinist. It’s this final lineup that recorded this Arensky album. Their most distinguishing characteristics are an emphasis on energy, a narrow, disciplined tone, chance-taking, and intense group practice. I enjoyed their silky and at times quixotic versions of the Tchaikovsky quartets and
Souvenir de Florence
(Telarc 80685), and wasn’t surprised to find much the same qualities exhibited on this release. The attempts at portamento aren’t especially convincing, given that their string tone lacks the kind of “plush” necessary to bring it off, but as the central section of the Piano Quintet demonstrates, they and pianist Adam Neiman are certainly capable of employing rubato and expressive dynamics as to the romantic manner born. These are, in short, worthy performances of all three pieces.
They aren’t without competition, however. The Lajtha Quartet with Nona Prunyi offered an identical lineup of music on Marco Polo 8.223911, though with slightly less technical virtuosity and a lot less theatricality. Among recorded performances that offer one of the works, the String Quartet No. 2 receives a vigorous, almost impatient reading from the Raphael Ensemble (Hyperion CDA 66648), while a more spacious account is offered by the Arienski Ensemble on Meridian 84211 (deleted, but still available from some sources). I’ve also enjoyed the warmly expressive live reading of the Piano Quintet on the three-disc set titled
Martha Argerich and Friends
, recorded at the 2008 Lugano Festival, though the Yings supply more finesse in the middle movement.
In short, while there’s no clear winner when it comes to a single version of the Second String Quartet, the Ying Quartet is my preference for all three works combined. With excellent sound, definitely recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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