Tchaikovsky: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3
'[Tchaikovsky's] chamber music...is not held in high esteem...for various reasons: weakness of form, unbalanced texture, inconsistency, and a tendency to...grand dramatic gestures best designed for large musical forces.' Audience members reading this in the programme note prior to this evening's concert are unlikely to have had high expectations for what was to follow. I'd say the assessment is unfair; Tchaikovsky's chamber works may be uneven, but the genius that shines through in the ballets and symphonies is just as evident here. That said, the programme included works from both ends of the spectrum, the Third Quartet, a work as fine as any Tchaikovsky wrote, and the First, which, to put it mildly, is not.
The First Quartet can work, just listen to the Borodin Quartet's recording, but it really needs a helping hand. Tchaikovsky doesn't specify enough variety of tempo or dynamic in the outer movements, and unless these are supplied by the performers the result can sound like 'grand dramatic gestures best designed for large musical forces.' That, sadly, was the impression this performance gave, with continuous and oppressive tutti textures beating the audience into submission. This, combined with some seriously insecure passage work from the first violinist, only confirmed the programme note's ominous predictions.
Fortunately, the music making in the inner movements of this First Quartet, and throughout the Third, was of a consistently higher order. The reason why the First Quartet retains a toehold in the repertoire is its folksong-inspired second movement. This was played immaculately, and with a sensitivity that you wouldn't have thought the ensemble capable if you'd only heard the first movement. And the scherzo third movement had a real sense of energy and buoyancy, and again a unity of ensemble and purpose from the players that brought the music to life.
The Third Quartet was given a consistently inspired performance, and was far more enjoyable all round. But then, it is a much better piece, and the composer must share some of the responsibility for disappointing performances of the First. But the Third is both idiomatically written for string quartet and filled with invention and originality. The higher standard of performance may be due to greater familiarity on the part of the players, but if so, they were still able to keep it fresh. The one failing of this performance was a slight lack of muscle. Tchaikovsky's melodies here are angular and impassioned, and really need to feel the heel of the bow on the downbeats. The players here achieved the impassioned pathos, especially in the famous third movement, but the music lacked the sense of physical intensity that defines the work as Russian.
This was a rare visit to the UK by the Zurich-based Amar Quartet. They are apparently Hindemith specialists, which may explain why invitations from this most Hindemith-phobic of countries are so few. But they are a lively ensemble with a distinctively bright and attractive sound. Look out for them.