KABALEVSKY String Quartets 1 & 2
'At the beginning one does not expect much from this piece completed under the tutelage of Nikolay Myaskovsky on November 20, 1928; a study piece and nothing more, in accordance with the classical norm …’ True, annotator Eckhardt van den Hoogen does go on to find redeeming features in Kabalevsky’s First Quartet but to these ears the cradling opening bars are easily the most memorable, with more than a premonition (unfulfilled) of Pärt or Gorécki in full flight. However, once past the one-minute mark, the workings of a ‘classical norm’ become all too apparent. Echoes of folk music are central to Kabalevsky’s style, a fact that becomes even more apparent in the sizzling, high-octane Scherzo (complete with tellingly employed harmonics) which also acts as an effective showcase for the resourceful and technically accomplished Stenhammar Quartet.
This sense of formal expertise dutifully employed holds out for the duration but the five-movement Second Quartet of two decades later witnesses Kabalevsky extending his expressive potential to allow for more effective contrasts in tone and rhythm. The latter attribute initially strikes at around 2'45" into the first movement (recollections here of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, also cast in five movements) and then in the muted Scherzando leggiero, which nervously toys with ear-bending syncopations, an ingenious evocation of ‘night music’, complete with slithery sul ponticello effects. Although very brief (3'30"), the Adagio molto sostenuto slow movement plumbs further than anything else in either quartet. Myaskovsky was a fan of the work, which, while not quite up there with Prokofiev’s two quartets and certainly not with Shostakovich’s 15 (not to mention Myaskovsky’s own 13) is worth hearing, especially in performances that are as well played – and as well recorded – as these.