Tchaikovsky • Stravinsky • Schnittke
Curiously the oldest piece on this album, Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 from 1871, is programmed last. Admittedly it’s the most attractively performed on the disc, but it seems especially eccentric to sandwich a pair of bracingly dissonant 20th-century works by Stravinsky and Schnittke between this and the salon-style Variations on a Russian folk song. There are also numbers from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young as arranged by the Borodin Quartet’s original lead violinist, Rostislav Dubinsky.
Although the collaboratively written Variations of 1898 involved some well respected and even great composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov and (here quite unrecognisable) Scriabin, generally the Variations pass pleasantly if unmemorably, rather like Elgar’s Enigma without the inspiration. Then, after a galumphing performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Russian Song’, comes Stravinsky’s acerbic Concertino of 1920 and Schnittke’s characteristically eerie in memoriam to that 20th-century giant. The Kuss’s relatively low-key approach works well in Schnittke but makes the Concertino seem discursive and dull. There’s a superb alternative recording of both works by the Chilingirian Quartet on RCA Catalyst – gutsy, driven and engaging in the Stravinsky – but now only available as a download. On CD, the Goldner Quartet’s vivid Stravinsky is a safe recommendation.
The Kuss seem more at home in Dubinsky’s arrangements of Tchaikovsky, including alarming sul ponticello for ‘The Witch’, though the squeaking harmonics in ‘Kamarinskaya’ rather over-egg this unassuming piece. In Tchaikovsky’s Quartet, the players bring an understated tenderness to the well-loved slow movement – the one which, to Tchaikovsky’s delight, reduced the great Leo Tolstoy to tears.