Arensky • Borodin • Glazunov
This well-planned album offers three complementary works linked both by the genial spirit of Borodin, Russia’s first great master of chamber music, and also by each of their ensembles featuring the rich-toned palette of two cellos. Borodin’s Sextet, the surviving two movements of an early work from 1860, predates his involvement with Balakirev’s ‘Mighty Handful’ (which also included Cui, Musorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov). Its Mendelssohnian first movement shows little sign of his own distinctive voice, yet it has considerable charm, and his masterful writing for this ensemble is evident in both this and in the curiously Brahms-like slow movement. Both movements are played here by the Nash Ensemble with relish and conviction.
Glazunov’s Quintet of 1892 is clearly inspired by mature Borodin. Its deft counterpoint and sweet harmonies perhaps offer insufficient contrast to sustain interest through its considerable length; yet, as Philip Borg-Wheeler’s informative booklet note suggests, its inventive pizzicato Scherzo anticipates that of Debussy’s Quartet composed just a year later.
Top of the bill in every sense is Arensky’s Quartet of 1894, presenting a hugely inventive variety of textures from its unusual line-up, particularly in the celebrated set
of variations on Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Crown of Roses’. That movement is often recorded in a version for full string orchestra; but hearing the original scoring, especially in this sensitive performance, clarifies both Arensky’s inventive variety of texture and colour, and the music’s essential intimacy. And the Quartet’s outer movements, with their quotations of Russian Orthodox chants and ‘Slava Bogu’ (famously used by Musorgsky in the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov), add striking gravity to what was surely Arensky’s memorial to Tchaikovsky.