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CLASSICAL  January 2008

CLASSICAL January 2008

Subject:

Tchaikovsky String Quartets & Sextet

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 22 Jan 2008 12:47:47 -0800

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Pyotr Ilyich 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 Total time: 136:37 (2 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: 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, Dvorak, 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 "cliches," 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, a la the later 5/4 "waltz" in
the Pathetique.  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 Pathetique 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 Dvorak, 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.

Steve Schwartz

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