Notes and Editorial Reviews
I am guessing the primary selling point of this disc from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is the Orion String Quartet’s recording of John Harbison’s new String Quartet No. 4, but the found treasure is Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2, written in tribute to the recently deceased Tchaikovsky. Anton Arensky (1861–1906) is part of the somewhat shadowy generation of Russian composers that came between Tchaikovsky and the Soviet composers. On the basis of this one example, I would say that Arensky’s contributions to the medium should be as well known as the Borodin and the Tchaikovsky quartets at the very least. Scored for the somewhat unusual combination of violin, viola, and two cellos (which may in fact be why it is not better known,
although Arensky also made a version for conventional string quartet), the work is in three movements. The second is based on Tchaikovsky’s song, Legend (which tells of Christ as a child planting a tree that will eventually provide the wood for the cross) while the third incorporates the “Slava!” melody familiar from the coronation scene of Boris Godunov along with other melodies associated in Russia with both tribute and memorials. This is apparently the only recording currently available and it is a must-have for any collection of Russian chamber music.
The other Russian work is Schnittke’s little Moz-Art in its scoring for two violins. It is based on fragments from a lost comedia del’arte pantomime that Mozart created and performed in as Harlequin. The two violinists spend the two movements trying to be proper classical musicians, but they keep running off the rails in a variety of ways (including at one point whistling). It is a more sophisticated version of Mozart’s own A Musical Joke. I find the Schnittke to be utterly charming and very funny. It also exists in a version for much larger forces that is coupled with Kremer’s version of the Concerto grosso No. 1 on Deutsche Grammophon. I actually think the duet version is funnier and a better piece.
The main event is, of course, John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 4, written for and performed here by the Orion String Quartet. Harbison is one of the most distinguished American composers currently active and I always enjoy his music when I encounter it. The problem is that I don’t remember it once it is over, and I think that is the key. Typically, in his description of the work, Harbison calls to mind the works of the great Viennese masters he reveres but, in fact, the work seems very much at home with its Russian companions. The quartet explores a whole variety of instrumental recitative in its first three movements before settling into a driving, largely contrapuntal finale. Although the harmonic idiom is tonal, it is harsh, even anguished, recalling much of the quartet-writing by Shostakovich. In fact, with its unconventional ordering of movements (slow-fast-slow-fast) and the emphasis on highly inflected vocally oriented melody, the quartet could almost be taken for a late work by the Russian now coming to light. Only the absence of Shostakovich’s characteristic melodic fingerprints gives it away as being by someone else. That said, it is a very serious work that rewards repeated and attentive listening. It is just the fact that the quartet does not announce itself as possessing a unique voice that, in the end, makes it less memorable than its two discmates.
The performances seem to glow and the recording is excellent. Recommended.
John Story, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 4 by John Harbison
Orion String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2002; USA
Moz-Art for 2 Violins by Alfred Schnittke
Todd Phillips (Violin),
Daniel Phillips (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1976; USSR
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