RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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’
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
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?
Glazunov’s quintet and Arensky’s quartet are underappreciated gems.
Great playing, great program, mandatory purchase.