Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
String Quartet No.1 in G major Op.11 (1888) [20:53]
String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.35 (1894) [28:35]
Piano Quintet in D major Op.51 [27:28]
The Ying Quartet; Adam Neiman (piano)
rec. Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 13-14 February 2010, 16-17 February 2011, 23 May 2011

This is a disc that brings home to me the dilemmas of personal taste. The performers here are the Ying Quartet. I had not heard them before but their biography shows them to be experienced and respected. They are the quartet in residence at the renowned Eastman School of Music and Harvard. Their recordings on Telarc of the Tchaikovsky Quartets were nominated for a Grammy. Elsewhere, I have read glowing reviews of this particular disc. So why does their playing not just leave me cold but at some points I really dislike the musical choices they make? I have too much respect for any musician who is willing to put themselves under the microscope of the modern studio so I will outline my issues and let you decide whether you wish to investigate further.

This is a good and generous programme and if you have a penchant for Russian Romantic music there is a great deal here to please. Arensky was very much a disciple of Tchaikovsky - the 2nd Quartet is dedicated to the recently deceased composer’s memory – and much of his music languishes in the shadow of the more famous writer. This is appealing and skilfully written music in its own right even if it lacks the extraordinary melodic gift that Tchaikovsky seemed to be able to call upon endlessly. Both quartets contain variation movements which showcase his remarkable understanding of string writing with everything imitated from bagpipes to balalaikas, festive dances and poignant laments. In a cynical moment you do wonder if variation writing is the refuge of those unable to produce substantial original material but who can develop on a smaller time-scale existing themes. The central Theme and Variations from the second quartet was arranged by Arensky as his string orchestra work Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky which remains his best known/least unknown work. The Piano Quintet which completes the CD is another winner and well worth hearing.

So far so good. My issue is not with the music and indeed not with the actual playing ability of the quartet. I have heard even finer string quartet playing but that verges on the superhuman; what we have here is technically good. No, it’s the series of strange musical choices and collective style of playing. Simply put, the quartet play at two extremes; dynamic verging on the aggressive or rather wan. There is little subtle gradation of instrumental colour. I find their use of vibrato too unvaried – again during the energetic or loud passages there is an unrelenting big vibrato that is too uniform and unsubtle. The recording gives them a less homogenised sound than many quartets – no bad thing and the players are very clearly laid out across the sound-stage with more separation than is often preferred in chamber music. Again, no bad thing. The cellist is sat in from the edge of the quartet. His nutty resonant tone benefits most from the recording style with his very articulate playing cutting through the texture impressively. I have big problems with many of the choices made by the leader. She favours either a muscular style that verges on the violent or a strange almost parody of schmaltzy playing. The use of portamenti is an established expressive device more favoured a hundred years ago than now to ‘bend’ into the pitch of a note while shifting position. It is relatively out of favour these days because it is perceived as sentimental and also runs counter to the current preference for ultra-clean playing with no audible changes of position. I rather like the judicious use of sliding and in the hands of a sympathetic player I find it hugely expressive. Here I find it applied arbitrarily and crudely. I don’t intend this to become a shopping list of moments I don’t like but to mention a couple; the very first bar of the 2nd movement of the 1st quartet has a scoop that sounds almost cartoonic. That this is then copied in the third bar too gives the music an air of parody. Also what frustrates me is the lack of consistency; the same music repeats with identical printed phrasing in bar 5 – but no scoop. I was so taken aback by this simply odd choice that I tracked down printed parts in case Arensky had given any kind of indication for such phrasing. This is, after all, music I have never heard before. In the edition I found there is no indication of any kind of sliding – to be honest it is hardly ever marked. Mahler is one of the few composers who clearly asks for specific and usually exaggerated slides. What following the score did indicate is how the Ying Quartet choose to ignore the quieter dynamics – this same passage is marked pp, you really would not know. Worse still, in the trio of the 3rd movement Menuetto there is a slide up to a C which can only be described as a smear – it is quite possibly the ugliest bit of playing by a good violinist I have ever heard. It almost sounds as if the note has been misread and in correcting the pitch the finger has slid. I find it all but impossible that this is a preferred choice. Lastly in the finale of the same quartet there is a mini cadenza for the lead violin. The player here again opts for a cheap operetta zigeuner slide up to the top note that while perfectly well executed is simply crude. Elsewhere the quartet is collectively guilty. At one point there is a series of pizzicato chords attacked with the ferocity a Bartók or a Shostakovich would purr at but totally musically wrong in Arensky; the score is marked just f with an accent not the open E twang we get here [Variation 4 2nd Quartet track 10]. Lines of accented notes are hit with equality just rendering them punchbags and giving the music no line or direction.

Part of the problem is that after a time you reach a critical (pardon the pun) mass of irritation where you stop listening for any beauty and wait for the next grist-to-the-mill annoyance. This was rather unfortunate for the piano quintet because I was rather over this disc before it arrived. Here’s another oddity – nowhere on the liner or cover is the name of the pianist – Adam Nieman – mentioned. Only in reading the “conversation” liner note with the quartet’s viola player is it revealed. In a 10 page liner of which 1 page is technical information, 2 pages are pictures of the quartet and a further 2 are a biography of the quartet Mr Nieman merits not a single word of information or biography. If I were his agent .… More to the point the playing of the quartet is rather tempered by the more refined touch of Mr Nieman. Also, the engineers have recessed the quartet back behind the piano ‘picture’ making overall for a rather more pleasant listening experience. The quintet also features a theme and variations movement and here, with the variation for piano and – initially - solo cello [track 17 around 2:00] is found, at last, some playing of considerable beauty and poetry. Overall, this is still big-boned expansive music and I still feel there is a lot more subtlety to be found in this work.

Arensky makes substantial technical demands of all the players both here and in the quartets. It would be churlish of me not to say that on that score the Ying Quartet acquit themselves well although no better I would say than any of two dozen other international quartets. The one thing I would take from this disc is that this is a rather wonderful triptych of works which separately and collectively deserve to be far better known. The identical coupling is available on an older Marco Polo disc from the Lajtha Quartet and Ilona Prunyi which I have not heard. Other than that the only other choices are for the 2nd Quartet in its original Violin, Viola, 2 Cellos form. I am still wrestling with just how negatively I have responded to this disc – usually I revel in the sheer visceral thrill of players launching themselves at music and not opting for the safe percentage game. This brings home to me how risk-taking alone is not of itself interesting or exciting. It needs to be allied to innate musicality. Too often what I hear in this case has the feeling of being applied from the outside rather than being the players’ intuitive response to the notes on the page. I feel obliged to reiterate the very positive responses I’ve seen elsewhere to this disc but it is not one to which I will be returning.

Nick Barnard

Not a disc to which I will be returning.