Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 3 in E flat minor; Quartet Movement in B flat; Four Movements for String Quartet

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COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: String Quartet No. 3 in E flat minor; Quartet Movement in B flat; Four Movements for String Quartet
PERFORMER: New Haydn Quartet, Budapest; István Tóth (double bass)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.550848
It may lack anything as immediately memorable as its predecessors’ slow movements, but Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet certainly shows him extending the boundaries of the medium. He composed it as a memorial to the violinist Ferdinand Laub, who had played in the premieres of the first two quartets, and like the much better-known tribute to Anton Rubinstein, the mighty Piano Trio of 1881, it has a first-movement allegro framed by an elegiac introduction and introducing a new lyrical melody when we least expect it. The heart and soul of the piece, an Andante funebre e doloroso, makes a solemn processional of march rhythms, a brief orthodox-chant requiem and a personable specimen of lyric remembrance. Some listeners may prefer that the Hungarians make less of a funeral feast out of it than the Borodin Quartet, but I do miss the vibrato-less pallor that the Borodin, surely bearing in mind its special approach to Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Quartet, cast over the brief chanting.

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Otherwise, the Borodin’s special nuancing makes this finely intoned performance seem rather sober: it has much more fun with the cheerful good timing of the finale and the fantasy-ballet scherzo (much the most individual in the three quartets). Rounding off the New Haydn’s two-volume survey are a straightforward account of the 1865 Quartet Movement with the two folk tunes that Tchaikovsky reused in the piano solo Scherzo à la russe, and four even earlier student pieces which include one decent encore. They’re slight fare, though – and remember that if you plump for the two Naxos bargains, you don’t get the supremely vivacious sextet Souvenir de Florence which gives an extra flourish to the Borodin’s aristocratic offering. David Nice