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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Three Pieces (1914) 1 – 0:59, 2 – 2:00, 3 – 3:58; Concertino [5:59], Double Canon: Raoul Dufy in memoriam [6:25]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-98) Canon: In memory of Stravinsky [6:25]
Nikolay ROSLAVETS (1881-1934) Quartet No. 3 [12:59]
Dmitri SMIRNOV (b. 1948) Quartet No. 2, I – Andantino [6:20], II – Lento [8:47]
Elena FIRSOVA (b. 1950) Quartet No. 4: Amoroso [15:21]
Chilingirian Quartet: Levon Chilingirian (violin), Charles Sewart (violin), Simon Rowland-Jones (viola), Philip De Groote (cello)
Recorded 27-28 April and 6-7 June 1994 in All Saints’ Church, Petersham, Surrey. DDD
RCA-BMG CATALYST 82876 64283-2 [65’04"]

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For a survey of modern Russian string quartet writing - with at least one grand master lurking in the background - the intrepid listener could not ask for a more vibrant slice than the one here. This disc was originally released in 1995 and is now brought back for an encore. Since the Stravinsky works are relatively well-represented in the catalogue, I’m not going to dwell much on them, since the Chilingirian Quartet gives them splendid readings. They are superb miniatures, especially the Three Pieces, and given all the wit they deserve by this excellent ensemble. It’s hard to imagine that in 1914 they were dismissed as "freakish and bizarre" according to Calum MacDonald’s excellent liner notes. And as MacDonald writes, the Schnittke is also one of his best works – an excellent small primer on the composer – and since it is dedicated to Stravinsky, it is thoughtfully positioned immediately following.

But to my ears the final three works are the best reason to acquire this recording. Roslavets has been gaining in attention recently. This is a good thing since his work is under-represented and well worth getting to know. Anyone with an interest in the Russian constructivism movement, or someone who admires Prokofiev, would thoroughly enjoy his work. This Third Quartet, in a single movement, displays Roslavets’ aesthetic perfectly. It is a vigorous, churning work, filled with the composer’s characteristic machine-like rhythms. The Chilingirian players give it a biting edge, without sacrificing their wonderful tone - not as oxymoronic as it sounds. Some recordings of this composer and his contemporaries are recorded with a harshness that is very fatiguing to the ear, but this clear and mellow recording is incisive without being unlistenable.

Dmitri Smirnov is happily still with us, and his Quartet No. 2 begins with what sounds like Shostakovich, before an eerie, hymn-like central section inserts itself, while a violin skates around nervously overhead, ending with high note over pizzicati for the rest of the group. In the second part, the plucking resumes with a viola solo floating above, and continues along a melancholy path before its end.

Elena Firsova is also a composer still writing, and her Fourth Quartet too is in a single movement. It opens with a gentle chord that then separates as the instruments pursue their individual paths, often traveling with the intensity of Schnittke. Interesting how so many composers have experimented with so-called "extended techniques for stringed instruments, and adopted some of Schnittke’s poly-stylistic leanings. The players intertwine in romantic, ethereal lines, building into a pizzicati interlude before returning to the slow-moving haze. The work reaches a second intense climax, followed by a return to the pizzicati figures, and then the last few minutes are filled with harmonics, glissandi and trills, before a final ascent that ends with a hush. Both Smirnov and Firsova are in the compositional camp of those who write work that straddles the tonal and atonal, not bound by any particular school of thought. Among Schnittke’s many accomplishments, I suspect one aspect of his legacy will be his smashing open a few compositional doors, setting an example that influenced many others.

I can’t praise this quartet enough, both for their warm, colorful playing and for the enticingly different, but well-considered program. The sound quality is excellent – just resonant enough to show the repertoire and the four players at their best.

Bruce Hodges

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