Nicolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
String Quartet No.1 in A minor Op.33 No.1 (1929-30) [28:26]
String Quartet No.13 in A minor Op.86 (1949) [23:42]
Renoir Quartet
rec. June 2009, Saint-Marcel Lutheran Church, Paris
AR RE-SE 2010-1 [52:50]
What was it about ‘waiting’ and ‘buses’? No sooner has the Borodin Quartet unveiled its recording of Miaskovsky’s Quartet No.13 [Onyx 4051 - see review] than the young French Renoir Quartet appears to trump them by adding the First as well. This bookending device ensures that the disc bears a ‘first and last thoughts’ patina. Miaskovsky delayed writing - or to put it more accurately, releasing for public consumption - a String Quartet until he was nearly fifty. His final work in the form was completed the year before his death.
The First Quartet in point of fact was the third of the Op.33 to be written. It’s an intensely chromatic, slithering and complex work entirely characteristic of his mid to late 1920s techniques. It abounds in fierce contrastive material and tension-sapping dissonance - listen to the cello’s winding line through the thickets of the texture or the ambiguous lightening of that same density. The Renoir has been accorded a warm acoustic, though it’s certainly close and detailed enough to catch some sniffing. Their approach is a degree more romanticised than that of the Taneyev Quartet, whose cycle of the entire quartets has been reissued by Northern Flowers [No.1 is on NF/PMA 9950]. The Renoir takes a heavier bow than the wristier, more abrasive Taneyev, and this means they miss something of the angularity of the chromaticism in this work. I was however rather taken by one thing in particular in this performance and that’s what the booklet writer asserts is the jazz element of the slow movement; what he adeptly terms a ‘stylised Blues’ - and that’s the way in which the Renoir duly plays it. The slower tempo of the Taneyev gives it a wholly different character, a highly expressive chant-like melancholy. I’d align this movement more with the Russian side of things but if the Renoir wants to see the Quartet through the prism, let’s say, of the slow movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata (completed in 1927) then I’m happy to enjoy the unpredictable results. I think most auditors would agree through that in the quicksilver elements of the finale, the leaner and more variegated sonorities of the Taneyev are preferable to the rather homogenised and all-purpose Renoir attack.
His last quartet was written in 1949 and was dedicated to the devoted Beethoven Quartet, who premiered it. This plunges headlong into lyric melee. Miaskovsky was fond of “fantastico” as a scherzo designation and this one is vivacity itself, albeit one tinged with a contrastive Mussorgskian-hued central panel - bronzed and powerful. The refined melodic strength of the slow movement never elides into stolidity though its central section, as so often with the composer, mines even graver sentiments. The finale returns immediately to the brio of the earlier movements. High spirits are paramount.
The Borodin Quartet (Onyx) keep things moving just that bit better than the Renoir, though their approaches are not dissimilar in terms of bowing and tonal blending. There’s a degree more aeration of the textures however in the Russian performance but where things do markedly differ is, again, in the context of the slow movement where the Renoir is brisk and light, and the Borodin relaxed, and the more nostalgic. Again I should note that the Taneyev recording is on NF/PMA9954, and their recording remains the most vital and engaging available.

That said the Beethoven (Westminster) and Borodin (Melodiya, in their earlier incarnation on LP, and on Onyx as above) both recorded No.13. The Kopelman recording of it has recently been released on Nimbus NI5827 coupled with Shostakovich’s First and Eighth Quartets. I certainly think it’s high time that the Beethoven Quartet’s less well known recordings were reissued - someone is going to tell me they’re available as downloads - and that includes their Miaskovsky.
Where does this leave us? An intriguingly Gallic slant illuminates the Renoir’s No.1 and No.13 has a brisk, no nonsense slow movement. The performances are finely played, well recorded - if too ‘sniffy’ - and will bring up short even seasoned admirers of the composer in No.1.
Jonathan Woolf
An intriguingly Gallic slant.

Miaskovsky review index pages