TCHAIKOVSKY: Sextet in D minor 'Souvenir de Florence.' String Quartet No. 1 in D 'Accordion.' String Quartet No. 2 in F. String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor.
Ying Quartet; James Dunham (viola); Paul Katz (cello).
Telarc 2CD-80685 () (DDD) TT: 136:37 (2 CDs)

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 individual, 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 luscious) 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 commissioner, 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 as if 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 Tchaikovsky's wow ending.

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)