Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
String Quartet No.1 in D, Op.11 (1871) [32:17]
String Quartet No.2 in F, Op.22 (1874) [36:53]
String Quartet No.3 in E-flat, Op.30 (1876) [37:40]
String Quartet Movement in B-flat major (1865) [12:57]
rec. 1993, Studio La Clé d’ut, Paris FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1297-98 [69:13 + 50:40]
Recorded back in 1993, I am not sure but suspect that this Tchaikovsky quartet cycle has been previously released on a small label but without much wide distribution. It was sponsored by a number of eminent organisations – Air France, Société Jas Hennessy, Fondation Menuhin – and the members of the Anton Quartet were given a set of violins made by the luthier Jean-Jacques Pagès on which to play. The group was founded in 1986 by students at the Moscow Conservatoire and Gnessin Institute, studying with Valentin Berlinsky of the Borodin Quartet. They won second prize at the 1988 Prague Spring competition and the following year won the Grand Prix in the quartet category at the Concours d'Évian. There is just a very brief paragraph printed on the jewel case about the group.
The first violinist of the quartet, Anton Matalaev, died in 2002, but in the period of less than a decade the ensemble was active they managed to record a small amount - some Bartók, Shostakovich, Glinka, Borodin and the like. But this twofer of Tchaikovsky’s string quartets, which includes the single quartet movement sometimes called, Germanically, the Quartettsatz in B flat major, seems to be their major undertaking on disc.
This is an accomplished set, technically adroit and with a sure sense of the music’s architecture. The ethos is one of clarity and directness, the sonority remaining relatively light and it would be interesting to know if the matching instruments conferred any difference in sonority from their accustomed instruments. It would be hard, though, to suggest that the group matches the characterisation and romanticised ardour of the pre-war Budapest Quartet in Op.22 – this at the time when the group had only one Russian in its ranks. There’s a slight want of recitativo misterioso elements in the opening Adagio section and the sense of vivid freewheeling geniality in the scherzo is much more restrained, with a more sedate tempo, in the hands of the Anton.
Nevertheless, though they can’t – nor do they try to – replicate the sonorous and rich warmth of older groups, the Anton plays with circumspect attention to detail. Their Op.11 is also a bit cool which means that the Andante cantabile, the single best-known example of Tchaikovsky’s quartet movements, is played with refined elegance at the expense of some passion. Op.30 is not as often recorded as its companions but in some ways it’s the best interpreted of the trio of quartets, where the well-calibrated dynamics are noticeable, and where the rather Olympian sense of reserve enables the funereal slow movement to maintain its dignity to the end. This rather uncushioned and objectified approach extends to their playing of the quartet movement, a relatively extensive thirteen-minute span.
Allegiance to the Borodin cycles, preferably the one on Chandos, or to the Keller or the New Haydn (on Naxos) will not be dislodged but this recording, made a quarter of a century ago, offers a souvenir of the Anton Quartet at a time when, significant competition prizes under its belt, it was generating momentum in a career that was to be sadly cut short.
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