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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete Music for String Quartet
Volume 1:
Five Early Pieces (1863-4) [8:42]
String Quartet in D-major, Op. 11 (1871) [30:14]
String Quartet in F-major, Op. 22 (1874) [36:25]
Volume 2:
Adagio molto for Strings and Harp (1863-4) [5:39]
String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor, Op. 30 (1876) [35:57]
String Quartet Movement in B-flat major (1865) [13:27]
Adagio Cantabile from Souvenir de Florence Op. 70 (1890) [10:58]
The Shostakovich Quartet (Andrei Sishlov, violin I; Sergei Pischugin, violin II; Alexander Golkovsky, viola; Alexander Korchagin, cello)                                 
rec. State Radio-TV at Moscow Central Recording Studios, 1973-1978. ADD
REGIS RECORDS RRC 2071 [75:21 + 66:01]


The Shostakovich Quartet was formed in 1967 by four students of the Moscow Conservatory, three of whom had been friends since childhood. The second violin, the odd man out, sometimes varied but was usually Sergei Pischugin. They took the name of Shostakovich for their group in 1979, mostly because they played so much of the composer’s music. They have also recorded all of his quartets, the piano quintet and other string pieces. Although not as famous an ensemble as the Borodin or Beethoven Quartets, their intensity and constant urge to get to the bottom of a piece put them in the front rank of Russian string quartets of their time.
 
The Shostakovich Quartet naturally did not limit themselves to the music of their namesake composer and their recordings of the Borodin quartets and two of the Glazunov are very fine. One of their best-known recordings is this set of the Complete Music for String Quartet of Tchaikovsky. A word is in order here as the set also includes five short pieces from 1863-4 and the B-minor Quartet movement. There is also here the Adagio molto for quartet and harp, but this set does not include the early pieces for quartet with double bass or the elegy for I. V. Samarin for quartet (later arranged for string orchestra).
 
As mentioned above, the five pieces for string quartet from1863-4 were examples of the composer trying out his musical resources and, along with a number of other pieces written at this time, were not meant for performance or to be played together. All of them are enjoyable and show some inkling of basic Tchaikovsky traits. The first (in D-major) is rhythmically typical Tchaikovsky, if in little else; the third (E-major) shows his predilection for sequences and the second (B-flat) his struggles with form. The longest, in E-minor, is also the least interesting, giving one no idea of what the composer would do with this particular key. The fifth (G-major) again shows him trying to consolidate his technique. These five works are not of great import, but are definitely more interesting than the Adagio molto for string quartet and harp. This sounds like an ensemble tailor-made for a composer like Tchaikovsky, and the introductory material is interesting, but it is developed lugubriously and the harp and strings do not blend together at all as in similar works of Ravel or Bax . The Quartet Movement in B-flat was actually performed and is a more substantial piece with a good first subject. Unfortunately the second subject material is not as interesting, even with it’s use of a Ukrainian folk melody that would appear again in the later Scherzo ala Russe. But the latter part shows some interesting harmonic experimentation and the coda is quite poignant.
 
This string music written in the mid-sixties did not much please the composer, who was heard by his friend LaRoche at this time to say that he would never write a string quartet or a work for piano and orchestra. By 1871 he had changed his mind and in between bouts of work on his opera The Oprichnik produced his first string Quartet Op.11, which was premiered at an all-Tchaikovsky recital on 28 March 1871. It was well received and shows a lot of advances over the music of five or six years before. By this time the composer had already written the first symphony and Romeo and Juliet. He is much more assured in his blending of instruments and is far more willing to experiment harmonically. Not only is his material more powerful, but he knows what to do with it.
                                                                                                                                          
As the three quartets have been recorded many times, I will devote extra attention to aspects of the Shostakovich Quartet’s performances. In the first movement of Quartet #1 their ensemble playing is very good, although not as smooth as that of the Borodin Quartet. They handle the second subject very well although the recording somewhat lets them down here and in the last third of the movement. The second movement contains the theme that made Tolstoy cry and this part of the piece has been played ad nauseum, a practice the composer despised. The players here wisely play it as the second movement of a quartet without any intimation of anything else. Alexander Galkovsky, the violist, plays his part beautifully in the second subject. The players begin the Scherzo energetically, but at too rapid a tempo for me. Things settle down with the trio-one of the most beautiful moments in this on these discs. In the last movement the players bring out a light-hearted element that is not always heard in performances of this piece. This time the cellist, Alexander Korchagin, is center-stage, both in the reprise of the second subject and at the end.
 
The 2nd Quartet, of 1874, shows how Tchaikovsky continued to perfect his art. Now he had two symphonies and an opera or two behind him. The beginning of the first movement contains some of the composer’s most daring harmonic experiments of this period. There is a masterful development of the basic material and the dramatic pace is maintained to the end of the movement. Unfortunately Korchagin, who shone so brightly in the last movement of the first quartet, is a little out of step with his colleagues in the first movement of the second. The charming scherzo of the second quartet demonstrates the composer’s evolving ability to use both harmony and instrumentation in his unique fashion. Galkovsky again plays beautifully and the entire group shows an unusual lightness of touch, as they did in the first quartet. The andante shows the composer creating his melodic material from sequences. Korchagin again shines and the group demonstrates a great ability to make each instrumental line stand out distinctly while not losing sight of the overall structure. The finale is a little disappointing after the intense slow movement, but the players don’t let this affect them. They bring out the charm of the first part of the movement and make the fugal section more interesting than in other performances. The end of the movement is full of brio, ending with a beautiful rendition of the staccato passages.
 
The Quartet No. 3 was written two years after the second, inspired by news of the death of a friend and colleague at the Conservatory, Ferdinand Laub, who had also been the first violinist in the premier of the Op. 11 quartet. While most of the mournful feelings are in the third movement, the first has plenty of sadness too; sadness that is demonstrated by Tchaikovsky’s increasing ability to use his distinctive style in the service of self-expression. The Shostakovich players start off very well but bog down a little with the first subject. It should be pointed out that this is the longest of all movements in the quartets and for some people goes on too long. Things pick up with the second subject and the four players are fine in the second half of the movement, with two violins performing the end wonderfully. The scherzo is played in a very sprightly manner, although I found in not as well-played as the corresponding movement in the second quartet. This is a shame because the movement is a textbook example of Tchaikovsky’s ideas on the scherzo form. The slow movement is Tchaikovsky’s formal elegy for his friend Laub. That this movement is a deeply lyrical one does not prevent it from containing some of the most advanced harmony and also structural experiments in all of the quartets. The players show a good understanding of the emotional import of this movement, pacing it exactly right. The last movement contains the best playing in this recording-the ensemble is together and at the right pace. It’s a fitting conclusion to this set of the three quartets. As we said above, the Shostakovich Quartet is notable for their powerful playing and their ability to get deeply into the emotions of a work. These particular aspects as opposed to attention to structural complexities or an objective distance from the music are what are demonstrated in this entire set.
 
These recordings were made for the State Radio-TV at the Moscow Central Recording Studio about thirty years ago, presumably for broadcast performance. The first and third quartets and the movement from Souvenir de Florence were recorded in 1976 and the second quartet two years later. The rest of the pieces date from 1973 to 1975. The originals were remastered for Regis by Paul Arden-Taylor of Dinmore Records. Mr. Arden-Taylor has done a very good job, although some things in the originals can’t be made right. There is a blunted quality to some of the recording, especially in the Quartet Movement and the first Quartet that takes away from the conviction of the playing. In the 2nd quartet the upper strings are shrill while the cello reverberates too much, especially in the first two movements. The last two movements sound better. In terms of recording the Quartet #3 is the cleanest of the lot; no complaints here. The smaller pieces also sound well. Obviously the engineer in 1978 was not the same one that was in charge at the earlier recording sessions.
 
The major competitors to these recordings are the two sets by the Borodin Quartet, one historical one on Chandos and a more recent one on Teldec. Without comparing the Borodin performances to each other, one must mention that both sets comprise the three quartets, the B-flat minor movement and the complete Souvenir de Florence. Neither Borodin set contains the early works heard on the Regis set. On the other hand, the Regis set contains only one movement of Op. 70. Since completeness is therefore impossible, one must choose between the more serene Borodin performances and the slightly rougher, but heartfelt Shostakovich ones.

William Kreindler
 

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