Wigmore Mondays – Michael Collins and the Borodin String Quartet play Mozart

borodin-quartet

Michael Collins (clarinet) and the Borodin String Quartet (above) (Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 25 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07866f4

Available until 24 May

What’s the music?

Tchaikovsky, arr. Rostislav Dubinsky – Album d’enfants, Op.39 (1878) (29 minutes)

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581 (28 minutes) (1789)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below, including a recording of Rostislav Dubinsky’s arrangement:

About the music

Tchaikovsky’s Album d’enfants follows in the footsteps of Schumann’s collection for piano of the same name, yet this set of 24 piano miniatures is designed to be played by children as well. It includes dances, children’s pieces, portraits and flights of fancy, with most pieces little more than a minute and a half in length.

In it the composer allows his inner child to run free, in the same manner it was to do later in life in the ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. This arrangement for string quartet was made by the Borodin String Quartet’s previous first violinist, Rostislav Dubinsky.

michael-collins

Clarinetist Michael Collins

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is probably the best known work for the combination of clarinet and string quartet, and it was written late in his life – 1789 – for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. It is written in A major, the same key the composer was to use for his final orchestral work, the Clarinet Concerto, and is notable for its sunny mood.

Performance verdict

This was a charming concert, though the Borodin String Quartet did take quite a serious approach to even the most infantile of Tchaikovsky’s character pieces. They were effective in their arrangements, and the quartet played with charm, delicacy and poise.

The Clarinet Quintet enjoyed a similar performance – serious but enjoying the work’s abundance of melody, although the decision not to employ the repeats Mozart marks in the first two movements changed its dimensions rather. Michael Collins was a good match, allowing himself a freer rein at times in the solo part, and while the quartet and clarinettist did not exchange much in the way of glances during the performance, theirs was an account notable for its unity. When played as beautifully as it was here, the Clarinet Quintet is as vivid an evocation of spring as you could wish to hear!

What should I listen out for?

Tchaikovsky

1:20 Morning prayer a charming, contented slow piece

2:42 A Winter morning – quite a blustery one by the sounds of it! Quicker interplay between the instruments

3:32 The Hobby-Horse – a quick portrait of a horse that seems to be difficult to capture!

4:17 Little Mother – soft and reassuring music that speaks of safety and warmth

5:55 March of the Wooden Soldiers – the title sounds like something out of The Nutracker, and the tune is similar. A crisp march.

6:49 The Sick Doll – the mutes are on for this fragile, mournful portrait, which sinks despondently into its minor key.

8:20 The Doll’s Funeral – the doll has now died, and this movement marks its passing with plaintive pizzicato.

9:49 The New Doll – the funeral has passed and a relatively quick and brief waltz, the face of the new doll lifts the mood from the doldrums.

10:29 Old French Song – A solemn piece, but with elements of warmth too. A beautifully scored movement, this has a lovely unison between first violin and cello.

11:48 German Song – this cheery dance has a jagged rhythm and opens out into quite a knees-up! The viola (I think) can be heard tapping its strings rhythmically half way through.

13:00 Italian Song – this has a lovely warmth, and the full part writing allows us to hear a lovely, rich quartet sound, with the cello plucking underneath.

14:15 Neapolitan Song – here the peasant is playing a form of concertina – and it sounds a lot of fun from the cello plucking and the sprightly tunes from the quartet!

15:24 Waltz – this has a lovely, simple tune for first violin, with the other instruments mostly off the beat.

16:52 Mazurka – a grand introduction from the cello with multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once), taken over by the violin

18:10 Polka – a charming, brief dance, lively and with some imaginative violin harmonics at the top end.

19:21 Russian Song – a solemn intonation from each instrument in turn, taking on the form of a canon but then settling to a relatively calm finish

20:21 The Peasant Plays His Ziehharmonika­ – the instrument effectively portrayed here is the concertina, the quartet playing as one.

21:05 Popular Song (Kamarainskaya) – this is brilliantly sent up by the violin especially, with squeaky high harmonicas like an old creaking chest of drawers

22:28 Sweet Dreams – a sentimental tune where Tchaikovsky allows some indulgence

24:43 The Old Nurse’s Tale The scratchy strings here give a lovely impression of old age, and the tale itself is lightly humorous.

25:40 The Witch: Baba-Yaga Even more scratchy is the old witch, played with the bows right close to the finger board for a more scary sound.

26:22 Song of the Lark The lark makes a beautiful sound here, thanks to the first violin over warm string accompaniment.

27:52 The Organ-Grinder Sings – over the held chords of the organ the first violin sings in a rather small voice.

29:02 In Church – a solemn finish to the cycle, given by the quartet in very subdued and rather eerie tones.

Mozart

27:07 – the first movement (marked Allegro) begins with the strings, a restful series of chords that are actually the first theme, a support for when the clarinet rises through the texture. Then, a minute later, the clarinet enjoys a tune that rises through the texture, floating gracefully. At 30:06 Mozart develops his ideas, the main theme coming back at 31:18.

34:01 – the second movement is marked Larghetto. In the key of D major, it is notable for its restraint and beautiful, spaced out melody heard on the clarinet at the outset. The melody returns at 37:50 in an even softer guise, peaceful and rather moving.

40:44 – a stately Minuet for the third movement, led by the clarinet but egged on by the strings. Mozart includes two contrasting ‘Trio’ sections – the first in the key of A minor (42:01). The Minuet section is repeated at 43:59 before a second trio at 44:40, another graceful dance led by the clarinet. The Minuet returns for the final time at 47:00.

47:47 – the final movement consists of a perky theme from the strings, embellished by the clarinet – and then five variations on it. The first (48:36) gives the clarinet a free reign, the next (49:30) hands over the baton to the first violin in an energetic section. The third (50:25) moves into the minor key and a brief shadow falls over the music, before 51:36, where the clarinet joyously lets itself go in the fourth variation. Then the music pauses, almost in an operatic sense, with a complete freedom of tempo as the clarinet leads the movement towards a close – where the perky theme reappears (54:36).

Further listening

Having heard the Borodin Quartet in sympathetic versions of Tchaikovsky, it makes perfect sense to expand that to the composer’s three published string quartets, which are relatively rare in concert these days. They are extremely enjoyable works. The First is notable for its slow movement, the Andante cantabile, which Tchaikovsky arranged for string orchestra, while the Third is a particularly poignant piece of work. As a bonus the album below includes the Souvenir de Florence, the composer’s String Sextet:

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