On record – Quatuor Danel: Tchaikovsky – Complete String Quartets & Souvenir de Florence (CPO)

Quatuor Danel [Marc Danel & Gilles Millet (violins), Vlad Bogdanas (viola), Yovan Markovitch (cello)], Vladimír Bukač (viola)*, Petr Prause (cello)*

Tchaikovsky
String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 (1871)
String Quartet no.2 in F major Op.22 (1873-4)
String Quartet movement in B flat major (1865)
String Quartet no.3 in E flat minor Op.30 (1876)
String Sextet in D minor Op.70, ‘Souvenir de Florence’ (1890)*

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is a very welcome release from the Quatuor Danel. Having already given us complete cycles of Weinberg and Shostakovich – a total of 32 string quartets – they extend their reach back to Tchaikovsky and the first major quartet cycle in Russian music. There are two discs which include the three published quartets, the quartet movement and Souvenir de Florence, the composer’s String Sextet.

What’s the music like?

Following these pieces is a very interesting way of charting Tchaikovksy’s development as a composer.

The String Quartet no.1 in D major gives evidence of his major early influences, with Mozart and Mendelssohn in evidence. It also contains as its second movement the Andante cantabile, removed and arranged for string orchestra and very popular as a standalone piece for reflection.

The String Quartet no.2 in F major is weightier, with a more overtly Romantic musical language as Tchaikovsky shows more obvious emotion in his writing. The String Quartet no.3 is unusually cast in E flat minor, not a key string players regard with great affection, but one which offers very effective, dark colouring in an elegiac work.

The cycle is nicely positioned at regular intervals in the composer’s career, predated by a Quartet Movement in B flat major from the mid-1860s and capped by the String Sextet, Souvenir de Florence, from 1890, written while the composer was working in the Italian city.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are excellent performances from a quartet clearly attuned to Russian chamber music. They enjoy the graceful music with which the String Quartet no.1 starts, gliding forward with poise and elegance. As the development of the ideas gathers pace and intensity, so the quartet become more animated, convincingly driving through to the final bars. The Andante Cantabile is fresh and free of indulgence, its central dance offsetting the thoughtful main material. The Scherzo has plenty of cut and thrust, plus an enjoyable, bubbly trio, while the finale is in a similar vein but sunnier, enjoying the major key and some glorious melodies from Marc Danel’s violin.

Once fully in to gear, the String Quartet no.2 has an exuberant first movement. It is a high voltage performance, occasionally brimming over with its high spirits, but with a nicely judged and serene close. The quartet enjoy the rustic sounds of this work, particularly evident when Tchaikovsky uses open fifths in the lower parts, and they get admirable clarity from the big textures in the middle of the Andante.

The String Quartet no.3 receives a telling performance, getting right to the heart of Tchaikovsky’s thoughts. Sombre and thoughtful in its introduction, the first movement soon has admirable depth, the transition to the faster music ideally judged. The quartet relish Tchaikovsky’s fulsome writing but also the deeply soulful character of the movement’s second theme. The Scherzo is light on its feet, enjoying the exchanges from the top of the first violin to the bottom of the cello and back again, while the muted start to the third movement is particularly intense, deeply telling in its sorrowful and respectful closing pages. The finale largely shakes off these shackles but for a brief reference to the mood of the third.

As a useful postscript the Quartet Movement has a quiet and mysterious beginning, and it is not initially obvious where the work is going but then it blooms into a full structured movement, using the influence of Schubert and Mendelssohn to strong effect.

Finally a spirited account of the Souvenir de Florence, busy and upfront from the start, with plenty of energy from the six players – but with time too to enjoy both the softer second theme of the first movement and the lovely slow movement, where the cello line blooms beautifully. The shimmering central section here has plenty of drama, then the sound becomes earthy as the cello line returns. Textures are occasionally stretched in the third movement but the finale has a dramatic sense of urgency as well as a lovingly dispatched, broadly phrased second theme bringing brief parallels to the composer’s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. After this the sextet secure a thoroughly emphatic and affirming finish.

The big challenge with these works is getting the melodies to sing through the full textures with which Tchaikovsky writes, but the Quatuor Danel achieve the right balance throughout these excellent versions.

The elegance of the first quartet is immediately appealing, as is the red blooded cut and thrust of the second and the deeply emotive third, the best performance here. Having the Quartet Movement and an excellent account of Souvenir de Florence is the icing on the cake.

Is it recommended?

Yes. There is formidable competition in these pieces from the Borodin String Quartet, in company with Genrikh Talalyan and Mstislav Rostropovich for the Souvenir de Florence, and also from the Gabrieli and Chilingirian Quartets.

Yet despite these the Quatuor Danel offer an excellent modern alternative, with excellent performances and recording all round. It’s time for Tchaikovsky’s string quartets to come in from the cold.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the Quatuor Danel’s Tchaikovsky cycle and purchase a copy at the Presto website here

Wigmore Mondays – Barry Douglas & Borodin Quartet – Shostakovich: Piano Quintet

Barry Douglas (piano, above), Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)] (below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 14 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

For the 2019-20 season many of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore Hall have taken on a playlist appearance. This all-Russian programme was no exception, with Tchaikovsky miniatures acting as a prelude to Shostakovich’s most successful chamber work, the Piano Quintet.

Tchaikovsky‘s The Seasons are a lovely set of miniatures for piano, characterising each month of the year rather than the four seasons. Barry Douglas, who has recently recorded the cycle, clearly holds the collection dear, and his accounts of March (the Song of the Lark) and October’s Autumn song were haunting and thoughtful by turn.

The Borodin Quartet followed with Tchaikovsky’s famous Andante cantabile for strings. The previous week they had given it in context, the second movement of four in the composer’s String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, where it is most effective. Here the silvery, muted textures were lovely, and the central section evoked a light dance, but the work’s placement felt constricted knowing the main act was still to come.

All that was emphatically put to bed by a storming performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, as authentic an account as you could wish to hear. The first incarnation of the Borodin Quartet worked closely with the composer on many of his string quartets, and they performed the quintet with the composer on several occasions. The first-hand experience of their predecessors has not diluted the intensity of the experience in transition, and this was a searing account of one of 20th century chamber music’s most powerful utterances.

The Prelude (20:36) and Fugue (25:27) dovetailed beautifully, the former section imposing and powerfully wrought, the latter gathering a mood of grim resilience as the elements of its theme became ever more closely interwoven. This carried through to the outburst that is the Scherzo (35:28). Here Douglas came to the fore, striking the octaves in the upper right hand with shrill clarity, the quartet responding in kind as the textures veered towards the orchestral.

A graceful Intermezzo (39:12) was deeply poignant, the combination of bittersweet violin and simple plucked cello affecting from the outset. Emotions bubbled just under the surface throughout this movement, threatening to break loose at any moment. As the music slipped effortlessly into the finale (45:17) it shifted up a gear, with time for another big theme (46:35) before navigating to the calmer waters of the coda, where resolution was finally found in spite of the slightly ghostly string tone.

This was a tremendous performance, with every ounce of feeling communicated to the audience, occasionally at the expense of tuning in the upper violin area but with an unwavering intensity. The audience loved the repeat of the Scherzo as an encore.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Tchaikovsky The Seasons Op.37a: March (2:00), October (4:31) (Barry Douglas solo)
String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, Second movement (Andante cantabile) (11:12) (Borodin Quartet)
Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 (1940) (20:36) (Barry Douglas, Borodin Quartet)

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, containing recorded versions by the artists. The Borodin Quartet released Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet with pianist Alexei Volodin for Decca in 2018 – and here it is prefaced by one of the group’s several recorded versions of the Andante cantabile. Barry Douglas’s Tchaikovsky is part of an album of the complete cycle of The Seasons:

Another Russian chamber music powerhouse can be heard below. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, written in memory of pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, is a deeply expressive piece full of pain and resilience. Here it is from Trio Wanderer:

Shostakovich was not done with his piano-based chamber music, adding a substantial Second Piano Trio four years later. You can hear it below with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and cellist Mats Lidström – part of a very impressive all-Shostakovich disc:

In concert – Borodin Quartet: Tchaikovsky & Arensky at the Wigmore Hall

Borodin Quartet [(Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)]

Wigmore Hall
Wednesday 9 October

Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 (1871)
Arensky String Quartet no.2 in A minor Op.35 (1894)
Tchaikovsky arr. Dubinsky Album for the Young Op.39 (1878)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Simon van Boxtel

The Borodin String Quartet have an unparalleled history in performing Russian string quartets, and the first of their three date mini-residency at the Wigmore Hall found them sitting firmly on home ground.

It could be said that the history of the Russian string quartet begins with Tchaikovsky, whose String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 began the programme. This contains his first ‘hit’, the second movement Andante cantabile which even now is a firm favourite in its string orchestra arrangement. Heard in proper context here, the understated emotion of Tchaikovsky’s solemn notes made an even stronger impact, especially when performed with due reverence.

The Borodin Quartet belong firmly to the old school of quartet playing, sitting still and straight-faced as they play, but as the evening unwound so too did their apparently stern countenance. The straight approach worked with this piece however, as an elegant first movement introduction gained weight and resolve, and the Scherzo third movement showed a rustic, outdoor quality. The final movement, capping a piece that doffs its cap to Mozart and Mendelssohn, was aware of the influence of both composers but showed off the uniquely Russian edge.

Anton Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 in A minor was written in homage to the recently departed Tchaikovsky in 1894. Replacing one of the violins with a second cello, the still underappreciated Arensky darkened the colours of the quartet, which has a distinctive if rather lopsided three movement structure. The outer movements take time for religious contemplation, while the inner and most substantial movement of the three spends time with developing a theme written by Tchaikovsky.

This Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky is itself more popular in a string orchestra arrangement, but as with the older composer’s Andante cantabile it is more effective in context, a great example of how to keep the potentially stale variations format fresh and inventive. This was a superb performance, the Borodin Quartet – through necessity reverting to two violins rather than two cellos – gravely intoning the main subject of the outer movements where time seemed to stand still. The Variations were brilliantly characterised and flew off the page, the ensemble speaking as one – and the final pages emphatically threw off the sadness of the chant-influenced passages, looking forward to more optimistic times ahead.

For the second half the Borodin Quartet turned to their one-time leader Rostislav Dubinsky, and his arrangement for them of Tchaikovsky’s piano cycle Album for the Young. Comprising 24 short pieces for children, it is packed full of dances, character pieces and portraits. Initially the thought was that this would be overindulgent and too whimsical, but as the set unfolded so did Tchaikovsky’s charm and Dubinsky’s invention.

Here was the composer who would eventually write so skilfully for younger ears in The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, channelled through the medium of an arranger who was able to send up some of the pieces with clever pizzicato or harmonics. This was where the Borodin Quartet let themselves go more, sending up The Toy Soldiers’ March beautifully, then indulging in colourful accounts of the French, German, Italian and Neapolitan Songs. The scurrying Baba Yaga was a treat, while the last two numbers, The Organ-Grinder’s Song and At Church were curiously ghostly, sending the young audience to what might have been a troubled sleep.

No such troubles here though, as we finished with an encore from Borodin himself, the Serenata alla Spagnola. It was led off decisively by the pizzicato of cellist Vladimir Balshin before its main tune, given affectionately by viola player Igor Naidin. It was a fitting way to end a charming and moving concert.

Further listening

You can hear recorded versions of the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including the Borodin Quartet‘s recording of the Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 and Rostislav Dubinsky‘s own Borodin Trio in the Album for the Young:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 25: Sol Gabetta, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska – Tchaikovsky, Weinberg & Sibelius

Prom 25: Sol Gabetta (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska (above)

Sibelius Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)
Weinberg Cello Concerto in D minor Op.43 (1948, rev 1956) [Proms premiere]
Tchaikovsky Symphony no.6 in B minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 6 August 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

This Prom was notable for its being the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first public concert with principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska and the first appearance in this (or any previous) season of music by Polish-born Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg, whose centenary is later this year.

Conceived as a Concertino then expanded eight year later, the Cello Concerto is not untypical of Weinberg’s earlier works in its discrepancy between completion and premiere (by Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow during 1957). Even more striking is its absence from the repertoire, given its formal clarity and direct melodic appeal. Myaskovsky’s own concerto is an indirect model, notably in the ruminative opening Adagio with a folk-tinged main theme that returns to heightened effect at the close, but Weinberg’s approach is more oblique and eventful. The first movement leads to a wistful intermezzo with Jewish and even Spanish inflections, then an animated scherzo capped by an extensive cadenza. This segues into a finale whose lively main theme is revealed as a variant of the initial melody during an increasingly inward coda.

The piece clearly has a devoted advocate in Sol Gabetta, whose perceptive account can only enhance its popularity. The BBCSO evinced passing technical fallibilities, likely caused by a slightly amorphous balance between soloist and orchestra in this acoustic; though that did not affect Gabetta as she drew evident soulfulness and intensity from the music. No-one hearing this concerto for the first time was likely to have been left unmoved – nor by Pablo Casals’s arrangement of the Catalan folk-song Song of the Birds, which made for a winsome encore.

Framing the Weinberg were two repertoire items composed during the same year. Sibelius’s Karelia Suite was never less then enjoyable, though Stasevska slightly misjudged the balance between reflection and animation in the Intermezzo, while the speculative modal contrasts of the inward Ballade might have been more firmly integrated. Best was the closing Alla marcia’ – its bracingly populist overtones allowed free rein without ever becoming blatant, though quite what determined that cymbal clash on the very final note is anybody’s guess.

After the interval came Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony – tonight receiving its 124th hearing at these concerts (so equating to one performance per season), and a reading which gained in stature as it unfolded. Stasevska had the measure of the opening movement, though a certain impassiveness was only banished in the development’s driving fugato as it carried over into the fateful denouement. The ensuing Intermezzo was deftly paced with no hint of stolidity in its trio, then the Scherzo had a propulsion as fairly erupted in its latter stages – the premature applause for once sounding spontaneous. There was no undue emoting in the finale as this conductor heard it, with the music’s fraught eloquence maintained through two impassioned climaxes and on to a coda whose enveloping darkness did not preclude fatalistic acceptance.

If not an overly memorable performance, this was certainly an assured one that suggested the rapport between conductor and orchestra is already taking shape. Stasevska has two concerts with the BBCSO in the coming season which, on tonight’s evidence, will be worth attending.

Wigmore Mondays – Ilya Gringolts & Peter Laul: Stravinsky for violin and piano

Ilya Gringolts (violin), Peter Laul (piano)

Stravinsky
Suite italienne (1925) (1:17-16:57 on the broadcast link below)
Three movements from The Firebird (1926-32) (19:18-29:58)
Ballade from The Fairy’s Kiss (1947) (31:58-35:15)
Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss (1934) (35:22-55:21)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 3 June 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Stravinsky had a chequered relationship with stringed instruments, once describing them as ‘much too evocative’ in tone, but ultimately writing for them with the same level of skill he applied to the rest of the orchestra. Most of his writing for the violin in a solo capacity had Samuel Dushkin in mind.

Dushkin was introduced to Stravinsky by his German publisher in 1930, and Stravinsky wrote a concerto for him, before turning to smaller scale works for the pair to tour together. Many of these are smaller pieces taking stage works as their inspiration – and this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from the Wigmore Hall programmed music from three such works.

The Suite italienne actually predates the Dushkin collaborations. To give it its full title, the Suite d’apres des themes, fragments et morceaux de Giambatista Pergolesi, brings together an Introduction and four dance movements from the Pulcinella ballet, retaining their lyricism but adding a certain spikiness in the new format.

Ilya Gringolts and Peter Laul play them with great character here, from the breezy and catchy Introduzione (1:17), through the Serenata (3:26), to a Tarantella in a hurry (6:16). While the Introduzione sees Gringolts still finding his feet, the Gavotte con due variazioni (8:22) is really nicely done, as are the Scherzino () and Minetto e finale (12:28), where Stravinsky can’t resist the odd sardonic touch.

The three movements from The Firebird are more substantial, beginning with a Prélude et ronde des princesses (19:18) which has a cold shiver in tale. The Berceuse () has a thick, heady atmosphere, while the Scherzo (27:32) feels like it has to be somewhere in a hurry and is a thrilling chase between the two instruments, brilliantly played.

The Divertimento known as The Fairy’s Kiss was Stravinsky’s homage to his biggest Russian inspiration, Tchaikovsky. It is an exciting and winsome orchestral ballet, one of his more romantic creations based as it is on a selection of the senior composer’s songs and piano pieces. The arrangements here work well in the more intimate confines, and again Gringolts and Laul have their measure. The Ballade (31:58) is at times languid but then quite restless, while the Sinfonia (35:22) employs typical Stravinsky textures of bare octaves occasionally audible.

Otherwise the violin writing is perhaps surprisingly ardent, then we progress to a busy section of brusque statements before returning to the slower music. The Danse suisses have some fun figures and exchanges, Stravinsky unable to resist a toe-tapping march with a rustic feel (41:20) before the lively Scherzo (46:01). The searching melodies of the Pas de deux (48:57) lead to a feathery scherzo (52:08) then a brisk Coda, the rustic mood returning (53:19)

BBC Radio 3 went off air before there was a chance for listeners to hear the bracing encore from Gringolts and Laul. Their Danse russe, arranged from Petrushka, was a fitting end to a very well executed recital.

Further reading and listening

Ilya Gringolts and Peter Laul have completed two discs of the complete Stravinsky works for violin and piano. The selection making up this concert and its encore can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Meanwhile the below collection brings together Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and also the three ballets from which the music for this concert derives, The Firebird, Pulcinella and The Fairy’s Kiss: