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Tschaikowsky: String Quartet No. 3; Children's Album, Op. 39

Tschaikowsky / Utrecht String Quartet
Release Date: 10/22/2013 
Label:  Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog #: 9031798   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Utrecht String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 5 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY String Quartet No. 3, op. 30. Children’s Album , op. 39 Utrecht Str Qrt MDG 903 1798-6 (SACD: 65:24)

The Third and last of Tchaikovsky’s numbered quartets lacks the immediate appeal of the first one, the mellifluous D-Major, op. 11, but is a more complex and demanding work and certainly, at a duration of 35 to 40 minutes, more ambitious in scale. Like the composer’s later Read more Piano Trio, it was dedicated to the memory of a recently deceased friend and colleague, in this case the violinist Ferdinand Laub, and mixes grief, rage, and fond reminiscence. These violent contrasts have put off some listeners and caused them to view the work as “diffuse” and “formally ungainly,” to quote Paul A. Snook in 16:5. In my view, such emotional extremes are characteristic of Tchaikovsky and are one of the features that give this composer his powerful appeal. I think this an excellent work, one that deserves a more prominent place in the quartet literature, and I detect no such formal shortcomings. The first movement is symmetrical in structure, with a lengthy and elegiac slow introduction that turns up again as the coda. In between, shifting emotions are powerfully rendered in writing that is often very dense and involved and rises to furious climaxes. The slow movement, too, is a masterful piece of work. Shostakovich may well have learned something from its bleak stillness and depth of grieving.

This release is the second installment in a series of the Tchaikovsky quartets as performed by the Utrecht Quartet. In 33:3, Steven E. Ritter gave a strong endorsement to the first volume, containing the first two quartets. The Utrecht performance of the Third Quartet is excellent as well. This Dutch group is more polished than the Brodsky Quartet (on its own label), and perhaps aided by a vivid SACD recording produces a rich but lucid sound that contrasts markedly with the very clear but tonally lean sonority of the Shostakovich Quartet (Regis). Climaxes are nearly orchestral in weight and power. Tempo choices and relationships are unerring and generate a sense of continuity and integration amid wide shifts of mood. In the first movement, although they are not inflexible and employ well-judged expressive inflections, the Utrecht players maintain a steadier pace than the Brodsky or the “old” Borodin Quartet (the one that included violinists Rostislav Dubinsky and Yaroslav Aleksandrov prior to their emigration from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, on Chandos or Melodiya). They sometimes use quite a bit of vibrato but are more restrained and selective in that respect than those two alternatives. While the Brodsky’s first violin tends to dominate the ensemble, the Utrecht cultivates a more equitable balance. The Brodsky’s timing for this movement is longer than all the others, and their pacing sometimes strikes me as too relaxed and lacking in urgency. A quartet of musicians from the annual chamber-music festival in Heimbach, Germany, headed by Christian Tetzlaff as first violinist (C-Avi), is especially eloquent and nuanced here, although not quite as forceful in the explosive development section as the Utrecht players. The Borodin performance is urgent and fiery, the fastest of the five in this movement.

In the Scherzo, the Utrecht Quartet is less quick but a bit more weighty and thrusting than the other ensembles mentioned. This less playful, more serious reading seems consistent with the atmosphere of the work as a whole. The Utrecht rendition of the death-haunted third movement occupies a middle ground between the overly drawn-out approach of the Brodsky and the too brisk one of the Shostakovich, which lacks something in depth of feeling; the Utrecht players attain greater eloquence than either in exploring the torment of grief expressed by this movement. The impassioned Borodin performance employs a wider range of tempos to characterize each section. The Heimbach musicians show a little more emotional restraint, with refined eloquence and a more linear, flowing approach. None of the competitors mentioned match the darker sonority and visceral rumble of the cello in the Utrecht recording. The Utrecht performance closes with a strongly accented, propulsive Finale, more rustic in feeling than the well-articulated, poised, and flexible reading by the Heimbach musicians. The Borodin is once again the fastest of the lot, urgent and brilliant.

I am disappointed by the remainder of the Utrecht disc, due not to reservations about the performance but rather to doubts about the value of the material recorded: the piano suite Children’s Album , transcribed for string quartet by Rostislav Dubinsky. I tend to look with suspicion on such transcriptions and prefer to hear the work as the composer conceived it. An added drawback is that the 24 very short and mostly very simple pieces in this collection are generally of modest interest unless one is a child learning to play the piano, and they seem all the more trivial after the wrenching emotion of the Quartet. True, most of the pieces work reasonably well in the quartet arrangement. One, a setting of the Russian folk song “Kamarinskaya,” is actually more effective, but a few, such as “Song of the Lark” and “The Organ Grinder Sings,” lose their charm and become merely annoying. On balance, given the amplitude of the string quartet repertoire, it is difficult to understand why Dubinsky took the trouble to make this arrangement and why the Utrecht Quartet chose to expend its impressive skills on recording it. A more suitable choice would have been to use the available space for some of the short pieces Tchaikovsky actually wrote for string quartet, or for his wonderful Souvenir de Florence Sextet.

MDG’s SACD stereo sound stands out among the recordings discussed here for realism, depth, impact, and a very solid but not exaggerated bass presence. Some of this quality is retained in conventional CD format, which has, however, a leaner sound, with some loss of instrumental color. In addition to SACD stereo, MDG offers 5.1 surround and its proprietary 2+2+2 multichannel format, neither of which have I the equipment to evaluate.

Of the five recordings of the Quartet discussed here, I am less taken with the Brodsky performance than were Raymond Tuttle (27: 6) and Jerry Dubins (29:1). The Shostakovich Quartet plays incisively, with clean articulation and clear textures, but is sometimes short on depth of feeling. The Borodin performance is a classic and very compelling, but the recording shows its age in terms of sound quality. (I haven’t heard the two recordings by the later Borodin Quartet, on EMI and Teldec). The Shostakovich and Borodin recordings come in two-disc sets, coupled with all or most of Tchaikovsky’s other compositions for string quartet. The Borodin also includes a performance of Souvenir de Florence that has Mstislav Rostropovich as the second cellist. Of the two newest recordings, the Utrecht Quartet plays with greater tonal weight and richness, while the Heimbach ensemble favors a more linear, flowing approach, and the refined and nuanced playing of its first violinist is a strong asset. The Utrecht offers superior sound, at least in its SACD guise, although there is nothing wrong with the Heimbach in that respect, even though it is taken from a concert performance. The Heimbach disc offers a coupling of greater value, a fine performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, but those interested in the Tchaikovsky Quartet will not want to miss the Utrecht Quartet’s compelling rendition of it.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 3 in E minor, Op. 30 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Utrecht String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1876 
Date of Recording: 06/2013 
Venue:  Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster 
Length: 37 Minutes 57 Secs. 
Album pour enfants, Op. 39 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Utrecht String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1878; Russia 
Date of Recording: 06/2013 
Venue:  Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster 
Length: 22 Minutes 33 Secs. 

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