Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
String Quartet No.1 in D major Op.11 (1871) [28:22]
String Quartet No.2 in F major Op.22 (1874) [37:57]
String Quartet No.3 in E flat minor Op.30 (1876) [42:42]
String Sextet Souvenir de Florence Op.70 (1890 rev. 1891-2) [38:20]
Franz Schubert Quartett (Florian Zwiauer (violin I), Hartmut Pascher (violin II), Helge Rosenkranz (viola), Vincent Stadlmair (cello)); Johannes Flieder (viola II – sextet); Walter Schulz (cello II – sextet)
rec. Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales, 12-15 June 1993 (Quartets 1, 3); 9-12 November 1993 (Quartet 2, Sextet)
NIMBUS NI 5711/2 [71:04 + 76:26]
The lack of enduring popularity of the Tchaikovsky String Quartets is one of Classical Music’s great mysteries. Remove the Andante Cantabile from the first quartet and none of them have any kind of toe-hold in the active concertising repertoire of any major quartet. On CD it is a slightly different case since the three complete quartets plus the magnificent Souvenir de Florence Sextet neatly make a generously filled ‘twofer’ which is exactly what we have here. In the same format the current catalogue has versions from several excellent quartets; the Endellion competitively available on Brilliant Classics, the Borodin Quartet either on Teldec or EMI, the Keller on Warner Apex, the Ying on Telarc or the Gabrieli on Decca to name but a few. Except for the Borodin/EMI cycle I have not heard any of the others so cannot make valid comparisons. Instead I will concentrate on the music itself.
In the early 1990s the Franz Schubert Quartett were something of a ‘house ensemble’ for Nimbus recording a range of repertoire in Nimbus’s own concert hall at Wyastone Leys. In the main this focused on music close to their cultural home of Vienna. I enjoyed their discs of Korngold and Reznicek as well as Franz Schmidt. Unsurprisingly from a technical and musical point of view these are very similar performances. The Nimbus engineers have chosen a closer more analytical microphone placement than that typical of their orchestral discs of the same time. When listening on headphones the breathing of the players is quite audible if not distracting and the overall ambience is relatively dry and the acoustic does not sound overly large. The discs split the music with the first and third quartets on disc one with the second and the sextet on disc two. It is a given that this is very fine string playing but I was relatively disappointed with the String Quartet No.1. Aside from the famous slow movement mentioned earlier this is a generally lyrical work without any great surprises in form or content. The opus numbers of these quartets are quite revealing; No.1 is Op.11 which places it next to the Snowmaiden incidental music and the Symphony No.1 (although the latter work dates from a few years before). David Brown in his excellent and concise note relates the pragmatic reason for the work’s composition being that the composer wanted to stage a concert of all his own works and it was cheaper to have a quartet performed than anything larger scale. That being the case for all its skill in composition and fluent melodic writing it is the least personal of the quartets. To my mind the more Tchaikovsky identified with a subject or had an emotional imperative to write a work the finer it is. The Franz Schuberts play the work very objectively with a degree of detachment which some might appreciate for not over-egging the sentiment. To my ear this goes too far with even the glorious song-without-words Andante Cantabile sounding perfunctory. Listen to the repeating cello pizzicato line which is played with almost mechanistic evenness. That this is a performance choice is clear because these are players with a vast range of instrumental colour and subtle nuance to call upon – abilities amply demonstrated elsewhere in this set and beyond – so we will just have to agree to disagree on that.
You have to swap discs to access the second quartet. Its opus number – 22 – sandwiches it fascinatingly between the Op.20 of Swan Lake and the Op.22 of the Piano Concerto No.1. Those two works epitomise Tchaikovsky’s miraculous gift for melody. Brown cites the slow movement of the second quartet to be Tchaikovsky’s most intensely personal music bar none to date. He sees in this movement, and by using that most intimate and personal of forms the string quartet, the first major expression of the composer’s torment over his repressed homosexuality. Whether you accept this interpretation or not what is striking in this work is the lurch between the quasi-classical objectivity of the outer movements which for all their vigour are positive in outlook for want of a better word and the despair of the central Andante. If I am being very very tough on the Franz Schuberts there are occasional minor intonational slips although this is as much to do with Tchaikovsky’s unforgiving approach to his string writing with the violin often written in unison lines at the octave which makes perfect tuning a nightmare. It is interesting to note here too that leader Florian Zwiauer deploys a leaner tone than say his Borodin counterpart who is steeped in the Russian violin school. In the years since these recordings were released the big fat tone of the Russian school has become ever more ubiquitous so it can be hard to cleanse one’s inner ear of that sound. Where they are not quite so successful is in the gently lilting folk-song trio of the second movement scherzo. My sense it is played with the head rather than a totally intuitive rubato reflecting the song-like quality of the passage. This is a very hard thing to quantify just a nagging feeling that this could be more idiomatic. The Franz Schuberts bring an expressionist intensity to the great slow movement the occasional roughness underlining the humanity of the music – the directness of the utterance would be quite wrong if it was all projected with silky-sheened easy sonority – this is superb music making on any level. Quite why this music has not grabbed the public’s imagination I can’t imagine; perhaps it is simply too confessional as Brown suggests. After such profundity the frenetic merriness of the finale comes as quite a shock. At less than half the length of the movement it follows there is a structural and emotional disjunction that is hard to reconcile. Right down to a fugal second subject jumping through good practice compositional hoops. The Franz Schuberts give it their all but it is oddly superficial – perhaps Tchaikovsky felt unable to ‘say’ more at the time.
Swapping back to disc 1 brings the String Quartet No.3 Op.30, a piece of profoundly felt and powerful sustained sorrow and grief. Just as Tchaikovsky’s other great chamber work the Piano Trio was written in memoriam of a great artist and friend (Nikolai Rubinstein in that instance) here the violinist Ferdinand Laub who had led the premiere performances of the two earlier quartets. Op.30 means it is sandwiched between the Op.29 of the Symphony No.3 and the Op.31&32 of the March Slave and Francesca da Rimini respectively. The latter work is undoubtedly one of Tchaikovsky’s true masterpieces and I am sure he spurred to greatness by the appeal of the subject of forbidden love leading to eternal damnation. Whereas in the second quartet the torment was confined to the central Adagio here the pain dominates the entire work. And what a big work it is too – at over forty two minutes it is written on the same scale as the symphonies. As befits its physical stature it receives the best performance of the set to boot. Something here clearly chimes more with the Franz Schuberts than the first quartet does. From first to last this is a magnificent performance forcing its way into your consciousness where it lingers long after the disc has finished. Again as Brown says, the length and technical difficulty (E flat minor is a vile key to play in!) militates against it appearing in too many music club programmes but it should be in the collection of any lover of chamber music. The structure is again unusual; a huge first movement running to nearly nineteen minutes dwarfing a sub-five minute scherzo, an extended heart-breaking Andante Doloroso double the length of the finale. The reason it works here as opposed the second quartet is there is an emotional through line for the entire work so four movements have a linkage that makes it an organic whole.
For lovers of string quartets it is a matter of selfish sorry that Tchaikovsky did not return to the medium in his later life post the 1877 crisis of his abortive marriage and attempted suicide. The only late string chamber work is the far from confessional but very wonderful Souvenir de Florence. If the third quartet sustains despair this is as sunny as any of his later works. That being the case I find the Franz Schuberts’ performance to be overly aggressive. The approach that paid dividends in the last quartet here stops the music smiling. You can hear from the very opening bars where the cello digs into the string so deeply that you hear a rasp. That being said the singing Adagio Cantabile (you just can’t get away from Tchaikovsky and song!) is a beautiful duet for the lead violin and cello. To accommodate the two extra players it sounds as though the instrumental group is sat a little further away from the microphones which works well. This is still a fine performance but one substitutes hot-house intensity too often for benevolent grace. My preferred version of this work has long been by the Camerata Lysy on Claves – this young group of players combine technical flair with the sheer delight of music making to superb effect. What a wonderful work it is though.
All in all a fine set performed in a very particular way by this splendid Viennese quartet. Nimbus’ packaging neatly puts the two discs in a single slim-line jewel case. Both of David Brown’s liner notes from the original separate releases are retained to good and informative effect. In a competitive marketplace this is up against testing opposition but as music this richly demands to be heard.
In a competitive marketplace this is up against testing opposition but as music this richly demands to be heard.