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Alexander GRECHANINOV (1864-1956)
String Quartets: Volume 1

String Quartet No.1 Op.2 (1894) [29.32]
String Quartet No.2 Op.70 (1913) [28.47]
Utrecht String Quartet
rec. Doopsgezinde Remonstrantse Church, Deventer, April 2002

Iím progressing backwards in my Grechaninov Quartet odyssey because I reviewed the second and final volume not long ago (see review). Hereís the first volume and as ever a quick word of praise for the Utrecht Quartet. This foursome really understands the idiom. It has demonstrated on disc before now how capable they are, in the best sense, in this sort of repertoire - and they reprise that quality again. They donít affect a big Russian sound, nor do they over-vibrate. The sound is equable, balanced across all four instruments, harmonious and tonally attractive.†
They simply take the music at face value and employ considerable sensitivity and intelligence in exploring its attractive facility. The 1894 Quartet is a big four-movement work with some arresting moments for the first violin. The warmth and slightly sweet cloying harmonies of the first movement recall one of Grechaninovís musical inspirations, Borodin. There are also a number of moments† - in the cello solo, in the harmonic and thematic material - that recall Smetana as well. The slow movement reminds us that he called the work as a whole ďVeraĒ (his wifeís name) when he sent it off to a composition competition. Warm and affectionate itís rather like a Tchaikovsky miniature. The Scherzo is lightly Slavic with melodic statements attractively distributed amongst the instruments and the finale is a grazioso affair, laced with pizzicati but not especially distinctive.
By the time of the Op.70 Quartet nearly twenty years had elapsed. Commentators tend to push a Scriabin connection though Iíve never really heard one. I do hear a Debussy lineage though, and in the more exploratory and expressive harmonies we can measure the increasingly sophisticated palette he wielded. Even the Scherzo has elements of puckish control that might remind one of Paris Ė a certain nonchalant brio about the pizzicati perhaps or indeed about the themes themselves. In the slow movement one feels even more those expressive harmonies and a distinctly vocal melody line that is unusual in the quartets but entirely reflective of the composerís high status as a writer for the voice, his primary claim to musical fame perhaps. The finale owes a hint or two to Taneyev in light vein, though it ends with a sturdy march theme and rounds off an avuncular, warm and attractive work.
This volume fully meets the standards of its companion. No-one could claim any of the four as epoch-shattering quartets but they are deftly crafted and very enjoyable, presented with care, precision and sometimes panache by the gifted Utrecht foursome.

Jonathan Woolf


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