Russian String Quartets
Nikolai AFANASIEV (1820-1898)
String Quartet Volga (1860) [24:17]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Two Movements for String Quartet: Chorale and Variations (1885) [4:35]; Fugue In the Monastery from String Quartet No.2) (1878/79 [7:11]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Two Movements for String Quartet: Romanze (1889) [6:03]; Scherzo (1889) [5:57]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Quartet No.2 in D major (1881) [28:17]
Leipziger Streichquartett (Stefan Arzberger (violin); Tilman Büning (violin); Ivo Bauer (viola); Matthias Moosdorf (cello))
rec. Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany, 10-12 November 2011

I am fond of the combination of including works by well-known composers with those by little known composers. This MDG release of works for string quartet played by the Leipziger Streichquartett containing music by Borodin; Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov rub shoulders with a rarely heard piece by their early contemporary Nikolai Afanasiev.

The first work on the disc and the earliest to be composed is from the said Nikolai Afanasiev originally from Siberia who moved to the city of Moscow. A professional violinist and later concertmaster of the Imperial Opera in Moscow Afanasiev taught himself to compose helped by study of works by the great masters Bach; Mozart and Beethoven. Today if Afanasiev is known for anything it is for his String QuartetVolga’ winner of the 1860 competition held by the Russian Musical Society. It seems that the ‘VolgaQuartet enjoyed a modicum of popularity for a time no doubt owing to its use of Russian folk melodies. As inferred from the title ‘Volga’ in the writing it is not too difficult to imagine a scene of Volga boatmen working on the river. I actually thought the captivatingly lyrical opening movement Moderato reminded me of an English pastoral scene even though it was written some forty plus years before Vaughan Williams; Butterworth et al were becoming known. Next ebulliently played by the Leipziger the Allegretto is dance-like and tinged with a rustic feel. Curiously a central passage reminds me of a frantic Scottish reel. Affectionate and moody the Adagio contains a soothing quality although in this performance from the Leipziger I did detect an undercurrent of melancholy in the writing. The jovial Finale, Allegro non troppo once again contains that rustic feel together with spirited playing. Although a most agreeable score in truth theVolga’ Quartet didn’t hold my attention for too long.
The prominent composer of the Russian nationalist school Rimsky-Korsakov did write a number of chamber works. Gerald Abraham’s short biography of Rimsky-Korsakov published in 1945 lists three string quartets. The first 3 movements of the String Quartet No. 2 on Russian Themes from 1878/79 were orchestrated as the Sinfonietta, Op. 31. Contained here is the final movement of the quartet titled ‘In the Monastery’ that was used in his opera Sadko. The first quartet movement the Chorale and Variations from 1885 has the chorale as the theme with a set of four attractively written variations played by the Leipziger in the manner of slow stately dances. The second of the two quartet movements is a fugue on the hymn ‘Our father’ as used in the Russian Orthodox Church. Here the Leipziger play the work at a measured pace conveying a tender side that provides a near-hypnotic quality to the writing that is a touch overlong for its material. Rachmaninov concentrated on writing works mainly for the orchestra; concertante and solo piano works featuring the piano. My list of Rachmaninov compositions contains less than dozen chamber scores written early in his career mainly between 1890/1901. In 1889 Rachmaninov then aged only 16 and still a student at the Moscow conservatory wrote his Two Movements for String Quartet beautifully played here by the Leipziger Streichquartett. The first piece a Romanze contains a gentle flowing melody which feels rather flowery in character. I did feel that the underlying temperament of the writing was not sufficiently sincere to feel truly heartfelt. The Scherzo is an uplifting piece rather melodic. I would describe the overall effect as twee and hard to take seriously.
In 1880 Borodin wrote his symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia;one of his best loved scores. Following on the next year is the String Quartet No.2 in D major an even more popular score that has become a staple of chamber music repertory. Not long after spending time in Germany with Liszt it seems that Borodin took only a few weeks to complete the D major score. I have three recordings of the Borodin String Quartet No.2 that has provided significant satisfaction over the years. First the intensely committed account played by the Shostakovich Quartet is a 2000 reissue from the original Olympia label release on Regis RRC 1011. I also greatly admire the refined yet powerful 1995 account from the Takács Quartet that they recorded at the Evangelischen Kirchengemeinde Honrath. I have the recording on a thirtieth anniversary 4 disc boxed set titled ‘A Celebration’ on Decca 476 2802. In addition I often play the 2002 account from the Lindsays recorded at the Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth. This is a performance with a fresh and spontaneous feel that I have on a commemorative 4 disc set released to mark the Lindsays retirement as a string quartet on Sanctuary Classics CD RSB 404.
Recorded in 2011 at the Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster the Leipziger Streichquartett are vividly caught with a well balanced sound. The release contains decent booklet notes too. This well presented release gloriously played by the Leipziger Streichquartett on MDG will surely delight lovers of Russian chamber music.
Michael Cookson

Will surely delight lovers of Russian chamber music. 

see also review by Nick Barnard