Classical CD Reviews

“Journeys” — TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir de Florence; SCHOENBERG: Transfigured NIght – Emerson String Q. & guests – Sony Classical

The Emerson Quartet and guests perform two influential chamber works from the same decade, in order to capture their common expansion of traditional harmony towards a new 20th-century syntax.

Published on June 3, 2013

Journeys — TCHAIKOVSKY: Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70; SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht, Op. 4 – Emerson String Quartet/ Paul Neubauer, viola/ Colin Carr, cello – Sony Classical 88725470602, 61:32 [5/20/13] ****:

Having been fortunate to attend several seasons of Music@Menlo festivals in Palo Alto, California, I am well familiar with the efforts of cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet to bring high quality high voltage chamber music to the Bay Area. Both Tchaikovsky’s 1890 sextet Souvenir de Florence and Schoenberg’s 1899 sextet Verklaerte Nacht have figured in those programs, so their pairing by the Emerson String Quartet carries a stamp of inevitability.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence purports to be a genial an exuberant work, a piece meant to fulfill a commission from the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society; Tchaikovsky worked at the revision of the last two movements into 1892. Set in D Minor – as is the Schoenberg piece – the materials may reflect the dark impulses of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, upon which he labored contemporaneously.  If the Op. 45 Capriccio Italien served as a picture post-card in national Mediterranean colors, the sextet proves more idiomatically Russian, especially in its D Major operatic aria Adagio cantabile movement. Although Florence provided Tchaikovsky with spiritual serenity, the music, especially in its opening, triple-time Allegro con spirito, reveals dramatic turbulence and fierce passion. Philip Setzer’s violin part contains many concertante figures, and his singular voice renders the music into an accompanied troubadour’s song.  The affect of the Adagio easily recalls the Elegia from the C Major String Serenade, while the melodic virtuosity rivals moments – especially in dialogue with the cello – from Swan Lake and Evgeny Onegin.  Does its “winter wind” trio pay homage to Schubert?

The A Minor Allegretto moderato receives a ravishing performance by an expanded Emerson ensemble. Etched in terms of a Slavonic folk tune in 2/4, it has Tchaikovsky’s showing off his contrapuntal side – perhaps to please the Germanic side of the Russian Chamber Music Society – then moving to a dashing Trio in A Major, played saltando, the string bows’ bouncing in the sparkling manner of a fervent gypsy band.  By the time the movement ends, we have the tune quite thoroughly ingrained for spontaneous whistling. The big Allegro vivace conclusion opens in gypsy fashion as well, with beautifully controlled dynamics just waiting to crescendo – but instead, in true Mendelssohn fashion – Tchaikovsky opts for more contrapuntal display to “legitimize” his Classical credentials, likely. The last four minutes of this blistering rendition become magical, the mixture of polyphony and hearty Slavonic melody having reached a wildly jubilant peroration. Recorded in sweetly intimate sound (3 June 2012) at Queens College, the interpretation is guaranteed a long shelf-life.

Given that Schoenberg’s “programmatic” Verklaerte Nacht became his most popular piece, we have the familiar tale that when asked years later why he no longer composed in that “beautiful style,” Schoenberg replied, “I do; but you have to learn to hear it.” The Emerson Quartet decided to couple Schoenberg with Tchaikovsky to indicate the powerful but contrary motion music endured in the same decade, with the collapse of traditional tonality imminent. I find myself reviewing the third contemporary performance of this “Wagnerian” sextet in as many months! The Emerson Quartet ensemble attunes itself to the subtle chromatics of the main theme – the grund-gestalt, as Schoenberg conceived it – and their constant modulation and shifting to capture the torment of the female character in Dehmel’s poem of guilt and redemption.

Eugene Drucker assumes the violin concertante part here; and his inflamed realization makes us wonder why Jascha Heifetz, in his many chamber music associations with Gregor Piatagorsky and friends, did not inscribe this seminal work. Violin and cello dialogues suffuse this “symphonic poem” as they do the Tchiakovsky, though the lyricism proves more angular and anxious. At the climactic emotional paroxysm, there comes dreadful silence; and suddenly, the music passes through a brief E-flat Minor into the man’s redemptive answer – in the cello – in a loving D Major. The last twelve minutes of this ecstatic music becomes Schoenberg’s answer to the Liebesnacht Act II in Wagner’s Tristan. The night of bitter, confessional tragedy has transformed into a moment of grace. Recorded 14-17 September 2012 at the same Queens College venue, the seamless rendition also thanks Recording Engineer and Producer De-Hong Seetoo for its alluring sonic patina.

—Gary Lemco




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