English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Tchaikovsky arr. Woods String Quartet No. 3 in E flat minor, Op. 30 (1876)
Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
12-13 July 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
The English String Orchestra launched its schedule for 2022 with another premiere – that of Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet in an arrangement by Kenneth Woods, continuing a line of such rethinking which has previously included Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet (Nimbus NI6364).
Completed early in 1876, this work came about through the premature demise of Ferdinand Laub who led those premieres of Tchaikovsky’s previous quartets and whom the composer held in highest regard. Its tonic-key is unexpected yet influential (notably on Shostakovich), not least in an opening movement where the Andante introduction leads to an Allegro whose fervent striving never quite breaks free of the fatalism from which it emerges and to which it returns. Woods might have made more of that Allegro’s undulating emotions, but his take on its introduction and coda duly enhanced their sombre intensity. Nor was there any lack of wit or urbanity in the next movement, poised unerringly between scherzo and intermezzo, which could become almost as popular as the waltz of the Serenade for Strings in this incarnation.
Interesting that Tchaikovsky belatedly reversed the order of the middle movements, given the Andante funebre is the undoubted highpoint of this work and its impact would be diminished if heard earlier in the overall design. Moreover, Woods’ arrangement was at its finest here in terms of the interplay between solo and ensemble strings – those soliloquys for violin, viola and cello given added pathos by the greater textural depth; not least as the movement reaches its anguished climax then subsides into the chant-inflected elegy of its closing stages. Maybe the finale would have conveyed even more a sense of release at a swifter tempo, but Woods was scrupulous as regards its ‘non troppo’ marking; nor was there any lack of resolve as this movement headed on its impetuous course towards a decisive and life-affirming conclusion.
A convincing new guise, then, for arguably the finest of Tchaikovsky’s chamber works (not least compared to the over-inflated arrangements of Souvenir de Florence), and a welcome reminder of the ESO’s collective prowess whether heard in original pieces or transcriptions.
You can view this concert from 21-25 January at the ESO website, and thereafter for ESO digital supporters here. Meanwhile for information on the ESO’s latest release of the music of Steven R. Gerber, click here