Russian String Quartets
Nikolai AFANASIEV (1820-1898)
String Quartet Volga (1860) [24:17}
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Chorale and Variations (1885) [4:35]; Fugue In the Monastery (excerpted movement from String Quartet No.2) (1878/79 [7:11]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Two Movements for String Quartet: Romanze (1889) [6:03]; Scherzo (1889) [5:57]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Quartet No.2 in D major (1881) [28:17]
Leipziger Streichquartett (Stefan Arzberger and Tilman Büning (violins); Ivo Bauer (viola); Matthias Moosdorf (cello))
rec. Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany, 10-12 November 2011

MDG have produced a typically polished and well considered disc here. Sensible programming combines the totally obscure with the main-stream popular taking in along the way some curios by famous composers. Being naturally more interested in the unknown rather than the famous I must admit to being a little disappointed at what I initially perceived as a ‘safe’ option by including the Borodin String Quartet No.2. However, the charm and warmth of the performance as well as the link it has to other elements of the programme won me around completely. It transpires that Borodin - ever the self-taught composer - studied Afanasiev’s Volga Quartet as his model. Indeed listening to the Afanasiev one is struck by its subtle and skilful fusion of traditional four movement quartet form with something altogether more folk-inspired. This was the driving motivation of the famous “Mighty Handful” who sought to liberate Russian Art Music from the stifling yoke of Western Academic strictures by the use of folk melodies and narratives. That much of it occupies the same emotional landscape as Tchaikovsky’s lyrical melancholy is more a compliment to Afanasiev than one might initially think; the quartet was awarded a prize by the Russian Music Society in 1860 well before the more famous composer had written a note of any significance. Indeed I would go so far as to say that I cannot think of an earlier work that so successfully addresses the issue of writing an authentically Russian/Romantic string quartet.
From the opening bars both the work and the Leipziger Streichquartett establish their considerable credentials. A rather sombre brooding opening reveals string playing of beautiful blend and control with each part balanced perfectly. Soon the music opens out and the movement blossoms into a charmingly lyrical warm-hearted piece. Indeed that characterisation would fit the entire work; there is little of the dark brooding melancholy that inhabits the more overtly dramatic Tchaikovsky. All four movement headings; Moderato/Allegretto/Adagio/Allegro non troppo imply a certain moderation and avoidance of excess but in place of that we are given beautifully crafted writing of attractive melodic grace. It would be foolish to suggest that there is a proliferation of ‘tunes’ in the way that the Borodin Quartet overflows with but that is more to do with the extraordinary riches of that later work rather than a criticism of the earlier. There are some interesting quirks in the quartet. Formally it is well balanced although the closing movement feels a fraction short - a feeling reinforced by the curious ending where the music vanishes in a kind of wisp of musical smoke. Along the way there has been a theme that sounds like a close cousin of part of the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings - I assume they share some folk-song heritage. The second movement Allegretto substitutes for a true Scherzo and seems as if it will wend its way rather harmlessly until the 1st violin is given a finger-twisting counter-theme which buzzes around the other three rather sober parts like an annoying midge on a Summer’s day. The Adagio is beautiful if not profound but contains the most overtly serious writing in the work. This is certainly a work that deserves to be better known and the excellent Leipziger Streichquartett prove to be ideal interpreters. Here, and throughout the programme, their focus on blend and beauty of sound suits the music well. It is a cultured and refined approach that requires very fine string playing and years of working together to achieve results as fine as we have here. Certainly I have heard more overtly Romantic performances of the Borodin and at a push I might opt for such an approach but by their own terms this is top-rank playing. Only in the Rachmaninov did I feel this approach in anyway undersold the music. Twice Rachmaninov started writing a string quartet and twice he got as far as a pair of movements. Of this ‘pair of pairs’ the Romanze and Scherzo are by far the more interesting. I find it fascinating to hear the seeds of the mature Rachmaninov only a few years in the future fighting for supremacy over influences ranging from Borodin to Mendelssohn. Because the romantic gestures are rather undigested - certainly in the heart-on-sleeve Romanze - I feel they need to be over rather than underplayed. The Leipzigers with their taste and refinement somehow emphasise the weaknesses of the work - if played with complete fiery abandon the clunks and bumps of the work’s construction are swept away but a typically impassioned stream of proto-Rachmaninovian melody. Likewise, the Scherzo - Mendelssohn with a Slav accent in the framing outer sections and Borodin in all but name in the slower central trio - needs to bubble and sparkle with all the brilliance of the earlier composer. Here the Leipzig players choose a positively safe tempo that again emphasises the current weaknesses at the cost of future potential.
A pair of movements by Rimsky-Korsakov provide the other filling to the programme. The Chorale and Variations of 1885 are a stand-alone work of considerable austere beauty and simple genius. This is meat and drink to the players here - exceptionally beautiful playing with the hymn-like chords tuned and voiced to perfection. In contrast the somewhat earnest Fugue In the Monastery feels like the product of an academic head rather than a romantic heart. As mentioned earlier, I approached the Borodin somewhat disappointed to be revisiting such a chamber music ‘pops’ piece again. But within bars I was swept away by the sheer gorgeousness and inspiration of Borodin’s writing. For a self-taught composer he really did have a remarkably fine understanding of the essence of string writing. Hard the heart indeed that does not respond to as consistently a beautiful stream of melodies as exists in the entire repertoire. Beauty is the watchword for this performance. Although I do enjoy more overtly Russian playing of this piece I have to say that this time by not over-egging every single phrase the Leipzigers avoid the quartet descending into a half hour of gushing emotion and Borodin’s themes emerge stronger for a loving but not over indulgent approach.

With the Borodin indebted to the Afanasiev and the Rachmaninov written in the shadow of Borodin and with Rimsky-Korsakov a benevolent musical godfather in the background of it all this well-filled disc emerges as a programme of real stature. MDG’s production is very much typical of their other discs; warmly refined engineering complimenting the excellent quartet with an acoustic that is generous yet allows detail to shine. There is quite a lot of audible sniffing - presumably from the leader - but I do not find this a distraction. The liner-note is fairly pointless; good on some biographical detail but wafflingly generalised about the specific works. This is a disc that should find considerable favour with lovers of both Russian 19th century music and chamber music in general.
Nick Barnard
Should find favour with lovers of both Russian 19th century music and chamber music in general.