Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
String Quartet No.1 in D Op.11 (1871) [28.07]
String Quartet No.2 in F Op.22 (1874) [35.24]
Utrecht String Quartet (Eeva Koskinen (violin); Latherine Routley (violin); Joël Waterman (viola); Sebastian Koloski (cello))
rec. September 25-25 2008 and February 3-4 2009, Ehem, Ackerhaus Abtei Marienmünster.

Tchaikovsky’s string quartets have hidden within them some of that composer’s best and most moving musical statements outside of the symphonies. While there are good recordings and performances around, the opportunity to savour this new SACD disc was always going to be something of a treat.

With timings almost identical to that of the Borodin Quartet on Warner Classics, the Utrecht String Quartet does not challenge the established performing traditions for these pieces. My own reference is the St. Petersburg String Quartet on Sony SM2K 57 654. Some may prefer other versions to these 1993 recordings and it would appear that this quartet has since recorded a new cycle on their own label, but I preferred them in any case to the Ying Quartet on Telarc, if perhaps only for their more genuine sense of Russian earthiness. The Utrecht Quartet is in turn more refined than the St. Petersburg Quartet, but a tad more relaxed and urbane in general. This feeling is helped by a warmer sound with deeper bass even through the stereo layer of the hybrid disc, but the Russian musicians have a tighter, quicker vibrato in general, which keeps a kind of highly-strung tension going in even the more tranquil passages.

The String Quartet No.1 in D Op.11 is justifiably one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular, with so much beautifully lyrical writing and a merciful lack of scrubbing, something which plagues some moments of the second quartet. The Utrecht Quartet generates a great deal of excitement in the latter stages of the opening Moderato e semplice, building from that wide expanse of landscape conjured by the lovely but sparingly scored opening. Fans of this piece will probably dive for the second Andante cantabile movement if sampling favourite moments, and the Utrecht players do not disappoint here either. Their playing is if anything less sentimental and has a more narrative quality than with the St. Petersburg recording, which goes in more for little lifts of rubato and greater extremes of shaping in the phrases. The Utrecht first violin is left more as a solo line against the quasi-religious harmonies underneath, the shaping as a result emerging more through the answering voices in the rest of the quartet rather than in undulations of the group as a whole. I like this approach a great deal, and it fits in with the subsequent section, where the first violin continues its story in a more ambulatory mode, the pizzicato cello the turning spokes of a carriage wheel in gentle motion, perhaps muffled by snow, as are the instruments by their mutes.

With this central movement accomplished in superb style, the Utrecht Quartet can do no wrong - or can they? I like the energy in their Scherzo, digging deep into the strings and projecting the rhythms with leaping lightness at the same time. The Finale is also very fine, but I disagree with their decision not to play the exposition repeat. This reduces the movement by a good three minutes or so, and to my sense of proportion and symmetry makes the entire piece top, or 1st movement-heavy. True, we don’t always want to be sitting through acres of repeat, but in this case I would have argued for rather than against. The development comes up too abruptly and we are cheated both of that transition back to the light fragrances of the opening reprise, and some of the symphonic scale which the finale should lend to the work as a whole. Still, as I say, this remains a fine performance, and it is fairly easy just to revel in the playing rather than be picky about proportion. Take that section from 4:10 to where that cello melody comes in; sounding so rich that it gives the impression of two players in unison - stuff to savour indeed.

Moving from the first string quartet to the remarkable opening of the String Quartet No.2 in F Op.22 is almost like coming up against late Beethoven crossed with Shostakovich. Paul Mertens in his booklet notes refers to Tchaikovsky’s own comments on this movement and the quartet as a whole: “Nothing else has flowed from me so easily and simply.” Originally criticised for its complexities, modern ears have fewer difficulties with the richness of material in this quartet, though there are moments where an overblown thickness of texture make things less directly appealing than the first quartet. Whatever one’s opinion on the work, the clarity of the Utrecht Quartet’s playing, the definition in their voicing and weighing of rhythm, added to the superb quality of the recording, make for some of the best advocacy for this music that I have ever heard. Even when everything seems to be going on at once the inner melodic lines have direction and precision, without becoming choppy and vertical sounding as at some moments with the St. Petersburg recording. The Utrecht players are capable of generating magnificent tension, but know where to tone things down so that the contrasts are allowed their space to develop.

Of the other movements in this piece, the third; Andante ma non tanto is filled with the greatest melodic elegance, and the Utrecht Quartet does it justice with judiciously placed vibrato, or lack of vibrato, heightening just the right moments and keeping the texture as open and transparent as possible. The Finale is playful where it can be, dramatic as well, and a technical tour de force which the players on this new recording manage while never dropping from the highest standards of musicality. As ever with MDG the surround sound is very good indeed, the feel of the woody resonance in the instruments almost as palpable as at a live performance and certainly more so if than you would hear from the cheap seats. With this fairly close aural perspective you do get a ‘hot seat’ feeling, but there is enough space between listener and instruments to prevent this becoming discomforting. I must say I have enjoyed re-encountering these works in this new recording, and look forward to the second volume with anticipation.

Dominy Clements