Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
CD 1
String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.11 (1871) [31:41]
String Quartet No.2 in F, Op22 (1874) [34:47]
CD 2
String Quartet No.3 in E-flat, Op.30 (1876) [36:59]
Souvenir de Florence, Op.70 (1890/1892)* [35:27]
Keller Quartet with Kim Kashkashian (viola)* and Miklós Perényi (cello)*
rec. Erato, Tinel de la Chartreuse de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, December 1991 and June 1992; Église Réformée, Seon, Switzerland, November 1992 and May 1993. DDD.
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 68641-7 [2 CDs 67:12 + 73:07]

The Keller Quartet have a number of distinguished recordings in the catalogue, several of them on the budget Apex label, not least their 2-CD set of the Bartók Quartets, which Dominy Clements commended as good value, praising their accuracy and warmly polished sound, though he continued to prefer the Takács Quartet on Decca – see review. Like Gwyn Parry-Jones, I find their recording of Dvorák’s ‘American’ Quartet and the String Quintet, Op.97, a very strong contender – see review – indeed, this has become my usual version of choice for listening to these two works, so I had high expectations for the Tchaikovsky reissue which, in the event, were only partly realised.

The Keller Quartet reissue derives from Erato recordings. Warner Classics already have excellent performances of these four works plus the B-flat Quartet of 1865, derived from Teldec, on their slightly more expensive Elatus label (Borodin Quartet on 2564 61774-2 – see review).

The (original) Borodins also have a historic recording of the four quartets and Souvenir de Florence on Chandos at mid-rice, which again received critical acclaim, with Rostropovich, no less, as second cello in the Souvenir (CHAN9871(2)H – see review). Chandos are coy about the age of this recording: though they include an H for Historical in the catalogue number, the booklet indicates only the date of the digital transfer, 2000.

The performances by the Brodsky Quartet have also received a warm welcome: No.1 is coupled with Britten on Challenge Classics (CC72016), whilst Nos. 2 and 3 are on the Brodskys’ own label (BRD3500).

Even in the bargain basement the new Warner reissue finds itself faced with formidable competition from the Shostakovich Quartet, who offer the three quartets, the Adagio cantabile from the Souvenir de Florence, and Five Early Pieces on a 2-CD set, Regis RRC2071. William Kreindler described the Regis set as slightly rougher than the Borodin versions but heartfelt – see review. The first two quartets plus the early pieces are available separately on Regis RRC1238, a well-filled recording which I have happily lived with for some time. The Shostakovich Quartet have this music in their blood and the ADD recordings, dating from 1973 to 1978, are perfectly acceptable, apart from a little steeliness in the violins.

The versions by the New Haydn Quartet on Naxos have also had their admirers (8.550487, Quartets Nos.1 and 2; 8.550488, No.3, Quartet in B-flat and Four Movements) and they have the advantage of being available separately.

These versions, though at budget price, score over the Keller reissue by containing notes. Apart from a track listing, the Apex booklet is completely devoid of notes, which makes it seem superfluous that a Booklet Editor is credited. Warner Classics sell themselves short even with what documentation there is: CD2 actually runs to 73:07, not 63:07 as stated.

Not having heard the Naxos recordings, it is mainly with the Regis/Shostakovich versions of the first two quartets that I have compared the Kellers. The Shostakovich Quartet take the first movement of Quartet No.1 at a cracking pace – a whole minute faster than the Kellers – followed by a leisurely account of the Andante cantabile. This, of course, is the best known movement, often played on its own in souped-up and saccharine-sweet arrangements which, I’m sorry to say, set my teeth on edge. There are no such problems with the Shostakovich Quartet, though – their playing is affective but not over-sentimental. The Scherzo is again taken at a fair pace, with a tempo for the finale which respects both parts of the marking Allegro giusto. Apart from the finale, their tempi are almost exactly in line with those of the (historic) Borodin Quartet; the opening tempo of the finale is also very similar, but it’s hard to judge overall, owing to the shortening by the Borodins of repeats. I did occasionally wish to push the Shostakovich Quartet along very slightly in this movement.

By comparison with the Shostakovich and Borodin Quartets, the Kellers sound decidedly sluggish at the opening of the first movement: I really did want them to get a move on here, though they become livelier as the movement progresses and they end the movement in as lively a manner as I could wish. Their timing for the Andante cantabile is within a second of the Shostakovich Quartet’s at 6:36. I’m sure that this is about the right tempo; the classic Amadeus Quartet version (DG – no longer available except as a 2-CD download from passionato) and most recent performances agree, though I note that the Brodskys take a whole minute longer. The Kellers ‘milk’ the emotion here a little more than the Shostakovich – or is it that the superior recording allows their fullness of tone to come through more clearly? Whatever the case, I didn’t find the Kellers too sickly, though I prefer the Shostakovich Quartet’s version.

The Kellers are again a little deliberate by comparison with the Shostakovich Quartet at the opening of the Scherzo; where the Regis performance stresses the allegro, the Warner puts more emphasis on the ma non tanto. In the finale, the Keller performance is slightly faster, stressing the allegro, really scampering at the end, though without sounding too hurried, whereas the Shostakovich Quartet also take into account the second part of the marking (allegro giusto). Overall, the superior Warner recording is a plus, but I continue to prefer the Regis version.

The Shostakovich Quartet are consistently a little more spacious than the historic Borodins in the Second Quartet. Honours are about even in the first two movements. There’s very little to choose between the Keller and Shostakovich Quartets in the first movement or the scherzo, here placed second.

The Kellers’ tempi are slightly closer to those of the historic Borodins in the andante third movement and the finale where, again, I occasionally wanted a little more con moto from the Shostakovich Quartet. William Kreindler enjoyed the intensity of the Shostakovich Quartet account of the third movement; I thought them just a little too intense, but certainly not to the extent that I would write them off. They aren’t the slowest performers of this movement – the Vermeer Quartet on Cedille (CDL017, with Souvenir de Florence) and the historic Borodins take half a minute longer – but I marginally preferred the less intense Keller version. With their superior recording another advantage, I’m inclined to give the Keller Quartet a slight edge in Quartet No.2.

That makes honours about even between the two budget versions of Nos.1 and 2, except that the Regis CD also contains the Five Early Pieces – no masterpieces, but well worth hearing.

I’m less well acquainted with other versions of Quartet No.3, a work much less frequently performed or recorded, but I see and hear nothing to cause me to demur from the view that the Keller Quartet’s performance is idiomatic and likeable, but by no means the last word.

The Souvenir de Florence is a much better known work, albeit often in the form of Tchaikovsky’s own version for small string orchestra. As in the Third Quartet, the Keller Quartet’s tempi are all a shade more relaxed than those of the historic Borodins and, in the first two movements, than those of the Academy of St Martin Chamber Ensemble, also on Chandos (CHAN9387, with Glazunov Quintet). I think that these slower tempi from the Keller Quartet are slightly to the music’s disadvantage; though the playing in the opening Allegro con spirito is generally lively, the spirit does sag just a little in places.

There is real emotion in the Adagio cantabile, but never overdone – the players don’t lose sight of the remainder of the marking, e con moto, so there’s plenty of forward movement here. The same is true of the other movements. Like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, this is very intense music; it receives a generally intense performance from the Keller Quartet, one which gives no real cause for complaint, without quite effacing the memory of the Argo recording with the Academy of St Martin, coupled with the String Serenade, from which I first got to know the work. All in all the new reissue offers good value for money, yet with a lingering feeling that there is better on offer elsewhere.

John Philips thought the fairly recent recording of the Souvenir, with Sarah Chang and soloists from the Berlin Phil marvellous, placing it at the head of the list (EMI 557243-2, with Dvorák String Sextet – see review). Having downloaded this recording in lossless (flac) sound from passionato, I can only agree: this is a recording which stresses the joie de vivre, yet takes full account of the emotion and drama inherent in the music without wearing its heart too openly on its sleeve. I have seen the recorded sound criticised as top-heavy; I can only report complete satisfaction with what I hear, but my main Arcam+Monitor Audio system does tend to smooth out over-toppy recordings.

There’s another excellent recording of the Souvenir, from the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion and coupled with Arensky’s Second String Quartet (CDA66648, also available to download from Hyperion, mp3 or lossless). The Raphael recordings are from live performances with occasional remedial patching from earlier ‘safety net’ recordings made at the same venue. I think it really is worth paying that little extra for one (or even both) of these versions of the Souvenir de Florence; each offers an excellent coupling. The Dvorák on EMI is the more mainstream work, but the Arensky – an unusual quartet, with one violin and two cellos – offers perhaps the more appropriate coupling, since it was dedicated to the memory of his mentor, Tchaikovsky.

To sum up, then, the Keller Quartet performances offer very good value – with never less than competent playing and consistently good recording – but you can find rather better performances of all these works at a slightly higher price.

Brian Wilson