Alexander Tikhonovich GRECHANINOV (1864-1956)
String Quartet No. 1 in G major Op.2 (1894) [29:32]
String Quartet No. 2 in D minor Op.70 (1913) [28:47]
Utrecht String Quartet
Recorded at the Doopsgezinde Remonstrantse Kirk, Deventer, Netherlands April 2-4, 2002


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As a chamber music lover, particularly of the string quartet, I was pleased to be assigned this new release from MD&G. This is all the more stimulating because the two quartets are works that are relatively unknown yet of high quality. I found them to be neglected gems of Russian chamber music. They are perhaps better than most of the genre composed between the time of Tchaikovsky through to that of Shostakovich. It is my understanding that Grechaninov composed a further two string quartets and this release has left me anxious to hear those, should the opportunity arise in the future.

A pupil of Safonov, Arensky and Laroche at the Moscow Conservatoire, Grechaninov was considered to be a rather mediocre student so much so that Arensky advised him to pursue another career. When Grechaninov moved up to the St. Petersburg Conservatoire
he began to exceed all expectations and showed remarkable progress in composition under the tutelage of the master composer and teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.

Grechaninov was to become a most prolific composer particularly noted for his composition in the field of liturgical music where he made some of the most significant contributions ever to Russian religious music. In addition the composer's many songs that he composed before 1900 are considered by many to be among the finest by any Russian. Unfortunately Grechaninov's secular music has not lasted in popularity and he has become rather unfashionable classed as an eclectic composer of the old school. Perhaps this disc of the first two of his four string quartets will help redress the balance.

In the First String Quartet Op. 2 the opening Andante section previews material to come later. The leisurely Allegro features very lyrical and memorable Borodin-like melodies. Mixed with harmonies that reveal the influence of Dvorák. This proves to be an extremely attractive movement, confident and heroic like a young man facing the world with optimism.

The second movement Andante displays the same man in a more reflective mood. Brooding, the rich and dark harmonies cause momentary hesitation before a wonderfully romantic 'love theme' at 1:55. The relaxed mood persists, reminiscent of the ending of an era where such indulgence was still possible.

Next is a traditional-sounding Scherzo bursting with energy with the freshness of the opening movement returning. The trio section may be a traditional Russian folk song or a passing suggestion of one. However the transition back to the first section is a bit uninspiring.

The initial unison opening to the Finale, of a Shostakovich-like seriousness, is soon banished by a triumphant tremolo section. Again Grechaninov's lyrical style is prominent, mixing well with an almost 'Haydnesque' charm. After a Straussian 'conversation' between first violin and cello the confident themes return to bring an energetic conclusion.

The booklet notes claim that Grechaninov does not develop his themes sufficiently. The writer may be right up to a point, as the themes, though most attractive, are repeated with little variation. Despite this minor criticism this is an exceptionally enjoyable and rewarding string quartet.

In the later Second String Quartet Op. 70 immediately we notice that the musical language is very different. Grechaninov's use of spiky rhythms are particularly noticeable and reminded me a little of his fellow countryman and close contemporary Stravinsky. Overall there is an innate sentimentality but it is more opulent, clothed in chromatic, yearning, impressionistic attire suggestive of a Gustav Klimt painting.

There are also several echoes in the quartet of his exact contemporary Strauss. However the dominant influence is that of another fellow countryman, Scriabin. Grechaninov actually lived another 40 years so how did he follow this style of writing? Most intriguing! Aged 75 he moved from Paris to the USA and lived another 17 years!

The opening Lento is certainly the superior movement in this work with the remainder of the quartet being unable to match its creative qualities. For Grechaninov this is clearly a giant leap in maturity from the youthful Op. 2 quartet. The ending comes upon us with no warning which is a surprise but somewhat disappointing nevertheless.

The second movement Scherzo is unsettling with its jollity seeming cynical and devilish. Clothed in lyrical phrases it attempts to hide an undercurrent of unrest or mischief like a wolf in the well known fairy tale.

The Largo commences with much promise. A Fugato section at 02:22 introduces an attractive contrast. Grechaninov's harmonies are most ravishing but the material disappointingly begins to meander. Throughout both these quartets I am struck by just how much the composer seems so at home writing for this medium.

The Allegro finale seems to be modelled on Beethoven with a passing reference to the opening of his Op.59 No.1 Quartet. Not only with its classical rhythmical motion, but the modulations, pauses and accompaniment employed in the quartet writing hark back to the greatest writer of string quartets. Overall this is somewhat sombre in mood and not as immediately appealing as the earlier work but the listener is certainly rewarded with repeated plays.

The excellent Utrecht String Quartet perform these two rare and attractive quartets from a fascinating and underrated composer with real imagination and a strong commitment. Sterling performances combined with a most appealing recorded sound quality make this is an outstanding issue and the disc serves Grechaninov extremely well. Required listening for all lovers of late-romantic music!

Michael Cookson

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