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Friday, January 12, 2018

Russian to the Finish

From the Vault Dept.: Having seen this ensemble perform in Troy, NY – and, as you’ll read below, having been very impressed – I was pleased to be asked a few months later to write liner notes for their Dorian recording of Borodin string quartets, which you can read here.


THE TONE OF A STRING QUARTET CONCERT is set by the opening notes. Whatever the mood or dynamics of the first piece, you’ll get a sense of the ensemble’s surety. The beginning of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 4 has a passage in which the first and second violins are in unison, an octave apart; shortly after that, there’s a sequence of call and response. Those were enough to tell us that this group had matters like intonation and vibrato and dynamics nailed. There would be no technical problems. This was a group in complete control.

Recording the St. Petersburg Quartet in Troy, NY
6 June 2001 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 4 is in C minor, the key of the fifth symphony and the Pathétique sonata, and it shares a sense of defiance well articulated by the musicians. It’s also got early examples of Beethovenian quirkiness, as in the second movement, a scherzo that takes the place of something slow. It’s witty and gentle, and packs a nice joke toward the movement’s end when the cello fails to enter when you’d expect it. The third movement minuet moves us into an insistent, gypsy-like finale with lots of bounce, all of it giving the group plenty of easily bested challenges.

Their interpretation packed a lot more variety than I’m used to hearing from, say, the Guarneri or Alban Berg Quartets; some of the phrases were crafted with a little hesitation here and there, which actually proved refreshing to my ears.
In a breathtakingly deft juxtaposition, the next piece was Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7, a short work that seems to pay homage to the Beethoven. His first quartet in a minor key (it’s in F-sharp minor), it was dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Nina, but it was composed during a period in which he was listening to a lot of music by Haydn and other classical composers.

The opening movement gives its lyrical best to the first violinist and the cellist, with the inner voices providing spare accompaniment; as it segued into the slow second movement, that lyricism turned absolutely hypnotic. The viola came to the fore, and it was riveting, the most arresting concert experience I’ve had in many years. The Bartókian influence came through in the third movement, with its textures of alternating pizzicato and bowed sequences before a slow recapitulation brought the piece to quiet close.

Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor dates from 1876 and it’s hard-core Tchaikovsky, with endlessly repeated lyricism and developments that go nowhere. Twenty minutes of good music are stretched to about 35 minutes, with those sad themes that easily could transplant to a ’60s-vintage girl group lament. The performance, not surprisingly, was excellent; if anyone can reveal Tchaikovsky’s mysteries, it’s this group. Given their facility with the encore, a Glazunov movement titled “In Georgian Style,” I’d love to hear them tackle more Glazunov.

Next in the Friends of Chamber Music series is a performance by the early-music group Rebel at 8 PM Sat., Feb. 17, in Kiggins Hall at the Emma Willard School in Troy.

St. Petersburg String Quartet, Kiggins Hall, Troy, Dec. 3.

Metroland Magazine, 7 Dec. 2000.

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