TCHAIKOVSKY String Quartet No 1. String Sexttet, 'Souvenir de Florence'
The Novus Quartet’s wiry, glistening tone – like a tightly coiled bundle of fine, luminous filaments – brings to mind the original Borodin Quartet and the legendary Tchaikovsky recordings they made for Melodiya in the late 1950s. Like the Borodin, this young Korean quartet’s ensemble is impeccable, and they play with stunning rhythmic élan. If you’re looking for gauzy, moonlit Tchaikovsky, these distinctly unsentimental performances are probably not for you. The Novus capture a great deal of the lyricism, charm, and tenderness inherent in these scores – note, for example, in the famous Andante cantabile of the First Quartet, how the return of the first theme at 3'46" is played so softly it’s as if it were being hummed. But, more than any other interpretations I’ve heard, these home in on the music’s nervous, obsessive qualities.
The spirited, folksy tune that opens that quartet’s finale is phrased not as a single melodic arc but rather as a collection of separate motivic cells, as if it had been edited by Stravinsky. Then, in the third movement of the glorious Souvenir de Florence, the seemingly insouciant figure in the viola at 0'15" is given a neurotic, worrying character, with the feeling of underlying unease heightened by a tempo that’s driven faster even than the published metronome mark. Yet there’s a sense of balance here, too. Although the movement’s outer portions are painted in darker colours than usual, the central, Mendelssohnian section is dazzling in its articulateness and delicacy.
Viola player Lisa Berthaud and cellist Ophélie Gaillard blend seamlessly with the Novus Quartet, tonally and interpretatively. The recording quality is crystal clear, if a bit bright, occasionally giving the music a hard edge, and at times I wished for a bit more weight and warmth in these works – particularly in the sextet. Pride of place still goes to the early-1990s Teldec recording by a later configuration of the Borodin Quartet but these spectacularly well played, freshly considered new accounts offer ample rewards.