TCHAIKOVSKY: Sextet in D minor 'Souvenir de Florence.'
String Quartet No. 1 in D 'Accordion.' String Quartet No. 2 in F. String
3 in E-flat minor.
Ying Quartet; James Dunham (viola); Paul Katz (cello).
Telarc 2CD-80685 () (DDD) TT: 136:37 (2 CDs)
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Wonderful. With the exception of the Sextet and the Piano Trio, Tchaikovsky's
chamber music has languished in the same obscure bin as his songs and
choral music. It counts as some of his best work, a heady combination
of Russian melody, classical procedures, and a rapprochement to orchestral
writing. Tchaikovsky loads the Sextet in particular so full of sheer
musical stuff, it threatens to break the chamber-music mold.
All three of the string quartets come from the 1870s -- 1871, 1874, and
1876 respectively -- while the Sextet appeared late in the composer's
life, originally in 1890, with its final revision in 1892 (Tchaikovsky
died in 1893). The Sextet became op. 70 in a catalogue that reaches op.
80 (the Piano Sonata in c#), with four major works, Yevgeny Onegin and
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture among them, without opus numbers.
One notices in all these quartets something new to the genre, a symphonic
complexity and scale. Brahms, Dvorák, and Beethoven of course
have the complexity, but even at their longest (except for the Grosse
Fuge), none of their quartets tempts you to think of a string orchestra,
as the Tchaikovsky quartets and sextet do. Also, these works will surprise
those who believe Tchaikovsky a "mere" melodist who hid his
lack of compositional skill behind an orchestrating talent. The string
quartet medium is, after all, pretty much monochromatic, even though
the composer, predictably, wrings the last ounce of color from it. Tchaikovsky
works primarily as a contrapuntalist -- free counterpoint as well as "academic" forms
like canon and fugue -- and brilliantly. Add to this the composer's
genius for melody and invention and you have quartets, although highly
worthy to stand beside the best of the century. I have no idea why
these never made the standard repertory. They are as enjoyable (and
as amaretto ice cream.
Tchaikovsky wrote the first string quartet blindingly fast, pretty
much his norm. He was to have furnished an orchestral work, but the
Nikolai Rubinstein, told him there wasn't enough money to pay for an
orchestra and asked whether Tchaikovsky would mind writing chamber
music instead. The quartet's subtitle, "Accordion," may come from
the opening chords, even though they don't sound particularly accordion-like.
I doubt the composer provided the subtitle. Indeed, the first theme quickly
becomes quasi religioso and then moves to a characteristic quick waltz.
It's a long movement -- about 11 minutes -- and much of its duration
comes from Tchaikovsky's habit of repeating whole sections rather than "developing" something
new. Many sniff at the composer for resorting to the supposedly too-easy,
but surely the test must be whether Tchaikovsky has something to say
worth repeating. The invention here is first-rate, both of thematic material
and blazingly new string textures. I certainly don't mind hearing it
again. Also, the composer, amazingly enough, hits right away the essence
of the medium: a conversation among instruments, a distribution of musical
interest. This quartet does more than let the first violin sing lead
and the other instruments back up -- a high-class Gladys Knight and the
Pips. One notices throughout tasty solos for the second violin and the
viola, as well as for the more usual first violin and cello. The second
movement, probably the most famous in the quartets, sometimes gets played
and recorded all by itself as the "Andante cantabile." As its
title suggests, it's a song, A-B-A, based on a Russian folk melody Tchaikovsky
heard on his family's estate. One of its strains bears an uncanny resemblance
to the "Volga Boatman" song. It's a lovely tune, but I can't
figure out why this movement got singled out over the eleven others.
The scherzo third movement, in its rhythmic oddities and emphasis on
drones, comes across as a peasant-simple version of the first movement.
Nevertheless, it hardly proceeds straightforwardly. Even the drones --
especially the one in the trio section -- pack a surprise. For a composer
who gets raked over critical hot coals for his "clichés," Tchaikovsky
is full of passages that no other composer gives you. In this movement,
a wonderful contrapuntal passage for the players sans cello stands
out. The rondo finale begins with a vivacious idea just made for contrapuntal
fireworks and a manic close. You may find it hard to wait, but it doesn't
disappoint. Much of it foreshadows the excitement of the last movement
of the Fourth Symphony, written just five years later.
The second quartet premiered privately at Nikolai Rubinstein's apartment
and occasioned a break between Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein's brother,
Anton, a great pianist, middling composer, and pain in the butt who
knew more than anybody, including Tolstoy. Anton proclaimed the work "confusing" and "not
truly in the chamber style." Actually, the quartet seems much simpler
than the first -- indeed, the most lyrical of the three, certainly not
as contrapuntal. The first movement begins with a harmonic journey to
Ultima Thule, but soon settles down into accompanied song, where the
first violin gets nearly all the action. The second-movement scherzo
plays with unusual meters and rhythms, à la the later 5/4 "waltz" in
the Pathétique. It moves mainly in 7, and often posits simultaneous
cross-rhythms in 2. This results in a dance where every so often you
find yourself out of feet. The slow third movement's opening section
strikes me as a forerunner of the Pathétique finale, full of sighs,
cries, and consolation. It is also notable for a number of lovely duets
between first and second violin and between violin and viola, as well
as for a lively peasant-dance contrast. The contrast seems almost surrealistically
stuck in, but it energizes the return of the first section, which borrows
some of its rhythms. The coda alludes to the peasant dance before returning
to the sighs. The rondo finale, my favorite movement of the quartet,
is another of those pieces that seem to cry out for an orchestra. Perhaps
this is what bothered Rubinstein, or perhaps this is a measure of the
flexibility of Tchaikovsky's style. It's certainly great quartet writing.
The quartet gets the opportunity to sound like more than it is. One of
the rondo episodes, by the way, is a fugue. We tend to think of Tchaikovsky
as a "song-and-dance" composer. Here, he re-imagines, not
the fugal form, but the kind of music appropriate to the form. It's
he has the freedom to make a fugue out of anything he wants, including
the 1812 Overture. If the closing measures don't rouse you out of your
seat, you're probably not in the room.
The early deaths of Bizet and Ferdinand Laub, a violinist who had championed
Tchaikovsky's chamber music, haunted the composition of the third quartet. "Life
isn't fair" could well be its motto. Gloom either hangs over its
present or lurks just around the corner. On the other hand, of the three
quartets, it follows most closely classical norms. It is the most intimate
of the quartets. We don't get the symphonic scale of either the first
or second. It is also the quartet with which the composer expressed the
most dissatisfaction. Certainly, it's the one which resembles most closely
other quartets, but it's still chock full of Tchaikovsky. The quick second
movement, the most characteristic of the composer and not necessarily
out of place in a Tchaikovsky ballet, throws in quick jabs of single
notes of odd chords, which either fall or rise through the instruments.
That's the joke of the movement, but pensiveness returns in the trio.
The slow movement begins by treading, appropriately enough, a funeral
march, and at one point, the composer evokes a Russian Orthodox funeral
service, with cantor and antiphonal choral response. He then takes up
a song with a strong emotional resemblance to "None but the lonely
heart." The darker and more poignant parts of Swan Lake (the composer's
op. 20) inform the movement. The finale, another rouser with its glorious
ending implied in the tail end of the first theme, nevertheless doesn't
threaten to break the bounds of the quartet. Of the three quartets,
the third shows the greatest mastery of string writing.
Like other string sextets -- the Brahms and Dvorák, for example
-- Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence exploits the richness of the sound.
In that, it reminds me very much of the Serenade in C for string orchestra.
It's one of my favorite Tchaikovskys. The opening movement doesn't begin
so much as burst into a vigorous waltz that keeps threatening to break
into fugato. Again, Tchaikovsky emphasizes counterpoint, although never "school" counterpoint.
Much of it puts different, distinct planes of musical activity against
one another. However, what really impresses me about the movement is
Tchaikovsky's smarts as a symphonic planner. The textures scintillate
with complexity, yet he always has the instrument he needs to continue
ready at hand. The slow movement, another song in the "lonely heart" vein,
features the violin duetting with the cello. As in the slow movement
of the third quartet, a manic scherzo gets thrown in for contrast, but
this time only for contrast. It becomes a pivot for the recap, this time
with the solo cello leading the violin in the duet. Lovely -- with, for
me, echoes of the slow movement of the Borodin second quartet. The third
movement begins, deceptively, as an allegretto interlude, full of stretto
(one voice coming in with material from another voice, before the other
voice has finished). Again, Tchaikovsky interrupts with a driven quick
passage, and now he carries the energy back into the recap of the allegretto,
just as in the third quartet. The finale, a trepak, begins innocently
enough. However, one begins to notice the composer slipping into fugato
episodes, until finally the trepak itself becomes a fugue. I suspect
it would have knocked Bach himself on his ass, not for the ingenuity
of the counterpoint (though it has its moments), but for using the trepak
at all for the basis. Tchaikovsky himself, after two major revisions,
declared himself pleased: "What a fugue at the end -- it's a pleasure!" Of
course, it's first of all exciting music and a fugue second, though
the fact that it is a fugue gives you an extra jolt on your way to
Say what you will about the Ying Quartet, you have to admit it has its
own sound and its own approach to these works. Other groups, like the
St. Lawrence, the Hollywood, and the Endellion take a more restrained
classical tack. Don't misunderstand me: it's a valid way in, and all
of them deliver fine accounts. On the other hand, the Ying, like the
Borodin, goes for the viscera, and, frankly, as good as those other accounts
are, I prefer it for Tchaikovsky. They are the Stokowski of quartets.
If you want something with nice manners, this isn't the set for you.
They go for broke each and every time. This doesn't mean that they sacrifice
ensemble or precision. They simply generate more heat than anybody else.
The Sextet has gained a foothold in the repertory. I suspect that the
quartets were bled by too-tasteful accounts. They impress me particularly
with the ability to blend sharply-distinct instrumental tone (Timothy
Ying's sweet and Janet Ying's rich violin, Phillip Ying's strong viola,
David Ying's aristocratic cello) into a convincing ensemble whole. And
the disc is beautifully recorded, besides.
S.G.S. (November 2007)