Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Sextet in D minor [9:42]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
String Quintet in A, Op 39 [29:02]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op 35 [26:53]
The Nash Ensemble
rec. 27-28 February and 1 March 2011, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England
ONYX CLASSICS 4067 [65:37]
Even the program had me thinking ‘Recording of the Month’. Alexander Borodin’s string sextet is an early, unfinished rarity ending on a slow movement that sounds like Tchaikovsky in its melancholic good-tune simplicity. Alexander Glazunov’s string quintet is my favorite Glazunov, a masterpiece of Russian romanticism that overflows with ripe tunes, big emotions, and sumptuous writing for the two cellos. Then comes Anton Arensky’s second string quartet, written for violin, viola and two cellos, an unforgettable eulogy for his late friend - Tchaikovsky. If you’re missing even one of these extraordinary pieces, order the disc now.
What, you’re still reading? Well then: the Nash Ensemble give warm-hearted, lyrical readings of all these works, and there are too many highlights to mention. The Borodin sextet begins in a Mendelssohnian mode - he wrote it as a chemistry student in Heidelberg, and confessed it was meant to please the Germans. By the time the slow movement fades out to nothingness you feel an emotional connection to the piece far greater than would be expected of nine and a half minutes. The polish of the writing, too, is more than one would expect from a ‘student’ work.
The Glazunov quintet is a work I’d rank alongside the quartets of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Taneyev at the peak of Russian romantic chamber music. It spins out an unending string of expansive melodies, much like the second Borodin quartet, but without being quite as unforgettable. It received a mellower, more velvety performance on Naxos a few years ago at the hands of the Fine Arts Quartet, which has a tonal splendor and luxuriousness I find addictive, but I remember many critics saying that their reading didn’t sound particularly Russian. The Nash Ensemble (not Russian either) do have that idiomatic feel, finding for the first movement’s gorgeous second tune a tempo that both wallows and dances. Their pizzicato in the scherzo (a total delight which predates similar movements by Debussy and Ravel) are feather-light, and if the andante doesn’t charm you then nothing will.
Then there’s the Arensky. Its obscurity is inexplicable. It starts with a striking Russian religious hymn, which is used as a motto theme to haunting effect throughout. The lighter second theme, played here with such delicacy as dreams are made of, must be one of Arensky’s greatest inspirations. The second movement is a set of dazzling variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, who had died the previous year and whose presence one senses Arensky missing very dearly. The finale contains a fugue, which was obligatory for a certain school of Russian composers (think Kalinnikov or Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony), only this fugue, on “that” theme from Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets and Boris Godunov, is actually quite enjoyable. It’s probably the composer’s masterwork (see also the piano quintet), and it demands to be heard.
A few quartets (notably the Ying) have recorded the Arensky using a standard string quartet, rather than the one-violin/two-cello quartet Arensky called for, but don’t bother with those. The dark, bittersweet tone of the piece depends on its instrumentation. The only competitive recordings are live discs from chamber music festivals in Santa Fe, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas; don’t laugh: the latter album features cellists Zuill Bailey and Lynn Harrell.
Despite my soft spot for the opulent Fine Arts Quartet, this album has made me very happy. Two of my favorite underappreciated chamber works, a delightful novelty from Borodin, and the ever-superb playing of the Nash Ensemble, with everyone (it seems silly to single one player out) delivering their solo lines and melodies with satisfying warmth. The engineering leaves nothing to be desired; the program, filling as it does three gaps in the average listener’s library, adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The cover design’s pretty terrific too. I could go on, but what more do you need to hear?
Brian Reinhart 

Glazunov’s quintet and Arensky’s quartet are underappreciated gems. Great playing, great program, mandatory purchase.