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Boris TCHAIKOVSKY (1925-1996)
Complete String Quartets
CD 1

String Quartet No. 1 (1954) [18:50]
String Quartet No. 2 (1961) [23:18]
CD 2
String Quartet No. 3 (1967) [20:19]
String Quartet No. 4 (1972) [18:48]
String Quartet No. 5 (1974) [14:07]
String Quartet No. 6 (1976) [14:05]
Ilya Ioff (violin); Elena Raskova (violin); Lydia Kovalenko (viola); Alexey Massarsky (cello)
rec. St Catherine Lutheran Church, April 2008. DDD
NORTHERN FLOWERS NF/PMA 9964-65 [42:12 + 67:28]

Experience Classicsonline

Boris Tchaikovsky’s six string quartets were written over a period of nearly twenty-five years. They signpost his prolific composing career as do his four symphonies. Unlike the symphonies, however, they reflect little of his stylistic progress. In fact they display a deeper stylistic coherence and present a much more integrated body of works although each has its own identity.

The String Quartet No.1, completed in 1954, may still be regarded as a youthful work although preceded by the not inconsiderable achievement of the First Symphony. The quartet is laid out in the fairly traditional three movements: two lively outer movements framing a central meditation. The first opens in a bright optimistic mood contrasting with a somewhat lighter theme and unfolding in the lively interplay of two themes. The second is a beautiful meditation. The concluding Allegretto is in a similar mood to the first movement though with more restraint. It alternates moods in a seamless way, also allowing for some sharper accents and brings the work to its slightly ironic and understated close. One of the most remarkable characteristics of this fairly early work is its stylistic unity and tightly knit argument. Shostakovich and Prokofiev may be lurking round the corner, but the composer already succeeds in imprinting his own personality, even at such an early stage of his compositional life.

The String Quartet No.2, composed seven years later, is at once a more mature and more personal work. Its four movements “represent different facets of one image”: Natalia Pavolova in her insert notes. The rather heavy-treading, ominous opening Moderato is followed by a Scherzo, a ghostly, somewhat surreal march punctuated by sharper episodes. The ensuing slow movement, however, does not provide any release of tension. The many solo episodes that make up most of the music in this movement are all like “unanswered questions”. The finale opens with a unison theme but the music – for all its energy and drive – does not bring any clear resolution. Instead, the music simply withdraws with brief allusions to the theme of the first movement punctuated by pizzicatos from the second movement.

The String Quartet No.3 in six movements - all of them slow - played without a break is based on a 1964 film score: “While the Front is Defensive”. The first movement opens with a “frozen” spiralling tune over dry disembodied pizzicatos building to short-lived climactic outbursts. The second movement opens with a recitative-like gesture on the cello interrupted by interjections from the other instruments and proceeds with another recitative on the viola. The next movement consists mostly of a subdued, menacing unison with some exclamation marks, the whole suggesting some barren, inhospitable landscape. The fourth movement, the shortest of all and often somewhat louder than any of the preceding ones, is not the expected Scherzo. It ends abruptly and leads into the fifth movement in which the tonal ambiguity prevailing in the earlier ones seems to be resolved, though not quite; for, in the final movement, the music again unfolds in complete ambiguity recalling elements from the preceding movements in a summing up that still fails to achieve a clear resolution. In many respects, this rather enigmatic work seems to be one of Tchaikovsky’s most personal achievements. The temptation to compare Tchaikovsky’s Third String Quartet with Shostakovich’s similarly enigmatic Fifteenth String Quartet - also in six slow movements - is strong and, to some, hard to resist. Some commentators, such as Sofia Khentova quoted in the insert notes, wrote that Tchaikovsky showed Shostakovich his Third String Quartet - which he surely did - and that Shostakovich then decided that he should write a similar work. Tchaikovsky, however, tells a somewhat different story reporting that Shostakovich liked the Third String Quartet  remarking that “all is quiet, not a single loud sound”, which is far from the truth since the music of the Third String Quartet is not without contrasts or louder episodes, even if these are, quite often, short-lived. Moreover, the music never displays the almost suicidal despondency that one might experience while listening to Shostakovich’s final string quartet – a despondency that clearly reflects intimations of mortality.

Tchaikovsky’s last three quartets were composed at regular intervals between 1972 and 1976. Again, some commentators, including Viktor Petrovich Bobrovsky whose letter to Tchaikovsky is generously quoted in the insert notes, considered them a triptych, which may be justified by the comparative brevity of each quartet as well as by the character of each. A detailed analysis of the three works might also confirm this impression, but I am not technically equipped to carry-out such an analysis. The String Quartet No.4 is in three movements, though not along any traditional pattern. In fact a Moderato is followed by two basically slow Andantes. The first movement opens with a nervous, hammered-out ostinato mostly played in unison. A long-winding arching tune attempts to break through, fails to do so after several attempts and nearly succeeds at the end. The second movement opens with a solo on the first violin, repeated by the second violin and then by the viola. A long aspiring, almost Beethoven-like tune emerges - apparently unrelated to the opening theme - to be later confronted by the main idea from the first movement. The finale opens with another cello recitative commented upon by the other instruments. Varied reminiscences of material from the preceding movements creep into the picture with a somewhat surreal result. The recitative from the second movement, eventually combined with the first movement’s main idea, has the last word and the music ends on a quiet chord. Formally the Fourth Quartet may be the most complex of the six. Both String Quartet No.5 and String Quartet No.6 are in one single movement. Both are fairly concise – each playing for a quarter of an hour. The Fifth is melody-dominated in a simple, unaffected way and, as such, strongly contrasts with the inner turmoil and the formal complexity of the Fourth. As such, one might regard it as the slow movement of the triptych. The final string quartet opens in optimistic high spirits that alternate with slower, richly melodic episodes. The mood of elation prevails until the exalted hymn-like coda is reached. This is clearly the Finale of the triptych. Although there is much to gain from having these three string quartets played together and in chronological order, each of them is perfectly viable on its own right. Even so, there is much here to substantiate the theory of a triptych as put forth by Bobrovsky.

Boris Tchaikovsky’s music is never ground-breaking but always manages to be strongly personal in keeping possible influences, such as that of his teacher and friend Shostakovich, at bay. It also avoids any facile Neo-classicism. Neither is there any attempt at any all-too-comfortable Socialist Realism, which would anyway be pointless in chamber music. Tchaikovsky’s six quartets undoubtedly tell us much about their composer in allowing for some of his more intimate thoughts and concerns to be given strong expression, albeit with restraint and without the sort of histrionics sometimes heard in Shostakovich’s music.

I am in no doubt about it that Boris Tchaikovsky’s six string quartets – in much the same way but with different stylistic means as those by Jan Carlstedt – represent a far from negligible body of works. Although less radical than Bartók’s quartets, should definitely not be ignored.

The four players performing here do not seem to form a permanent string quartet but they play wonderfully throughout. They make the most of Tchaikovsky’s honest and sincere music.

In short, this is a splendid release and one I have long awaited; it was well worth the wait. This set should appeal to the growing number of Tchaikovsky’s admirers but also to all those willing to explore some hitherto neglected by-ways of the 20th century string quartet.

Hubert Culot 



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