TCHAIKOVSKY Chamber Works – Borodin Quartet
If the Tchaikovsky 'year' achieved nothing more than a thorough re-evaluation of the three string quartets, then it indeed served a significant purpose. And if its yield of celebratory CDs was ultimately a mixture of the good, the bad and the indifferent, there was one release that—for this listener at least—crowned all others: the Borodin Quartet's 1993 Tchaikovsky quartet cycle. Of course the Borodins (as led by Mikhail Kopelman) had recorded these works for the Russian Melodiya company some 15 years earlier, and that excellent set has long been available as an EMI CD double-pack. Comparing the two has been a pleasurable experience, and a humbling reminder that the current hunger for unfamiliar repertory does occasionally sidetrack the obvious. Who, for example, could fail to recognize the highly characteristic urgency and thematic strength of the F major Quartet's first movement development section, or miss premonitions of later masterpieces in the Third Quartet's Andante funebre. None of these works is 'late' (the last of them predates the Fourth Symphony by a couple of years), yet their rigorous arguments and sweeping melodies anticipate the orchestral masterpieces of Tchaikovsky's full maturity.
So why the neglect—that is, of all but the First Quartet? The most likely reason is our habitual expectation of orchestral colour in Tchaikovsky, a situation that doesn't really affect our appreciation of the early, almost Schubertian D major Quartet (the one with the Andante cantabile that moved Tolstoy to tears). The Second and Third Quartets are noticeably more symphonic and particularly rich in the kinds of harmonic clashes and sequences that Tchaikovsky normally dressed for the orchestral arena. Even minor details, like the quick-fire exchanges near the beginning of No. 3's Allegretto, instantly suggest 'woodwinds' (you can almost hear oboes, flutes and clarinets jostle in play), while both finales could quite easily have been transposed among the pages of the early symphonies. But if these and other parallels are to register with any conviction, then performers need to locate them, and that's a challenge the Borodins meet with the ease of seasoned Tchaikovskians. Generally speaking, the earlier performances have the more incisive attack (especially in the First Quartet); but the newer ones are marginally more 'natural' and spontaneous, most noticeably in the first movement of the exuberant Souvenir de Florence sextet, and in that wonderful passage from the Second Quartet's first movement (at, say, 9'23'') where the lead violin calms from agitated virtuosity to a magical recapitulation of the principal theme—an unforgettable moment, superbly paced in the Teldec reading. The sound, too, is rather more open than it is on their earlier set, although the Second and Third Quartets—recorded at The Maltings, Snape—are rather warmer than their Berlin-made companions. Teldec also offer a bonus in the shape of a quarter-of-an-hour B flat Quartet movement—an appealing torso imbued with the spirit of Russian folk-song—which is accommodated partially at the expense of the First Quartet's last movement repeat (included in the 1979 recording).
My preference for the new set should by now be obvious, although readers who already own the EMI cycle needn't feel a compulsion to swap. As to the Souvenir de Florence—one of Tchaikovsky's happiest inspirations—a star-studded mid-1950s reading with Leonid Kogan, Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Barshai has just been released on MultiSonic; it's a vigorous, highly cultivated affair that is only partially compromised by muddy mono sound. Collectors hell-bent on comprehensiveness might also like to consider the Shostakovich Quartet on Olympia, less refined than the Borodins (both as sound and performance) but who include, on three CDs (and in addition to music by Glinka and Grechaninov), all that Teldec give us plus Five Early Pieces for String Quartet and an Adagio molto for string quartet and harp; minor fare, certainly, but useful for those who need to know from whence the master had come.'