AN 2 9954

Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, Quartet No. 1

Release date September 22, 2009
Album code AN 2 9954
Periods Classical

Album information

I Musici de Montréal are back with a new album featuring their landmark repertoire: the music of Tchaikovsky. Souvenir de Florence and the First Quartet, works they have played numerous times over their history, are recorded in orchestral versions realized by maestro Yuli Turovsky. A new long-awaited CD to be added on this ensemble prestigious discography.

Tchaïkovsky: Souvenir de Florence

Florence is so very dear to my heart. The longer you spend here the fonder you grow of it. This isn’t a noisy capital, where your eyes don’t know which way to look and which tires you with its bustle. But at the same time, there are so many things here full of artistic and historical interest that there is no chance of being bored.

Piotr Il’ich Tchaïkovsky (1840-1893) first set foot in Florence in 1878, thanks to the generosity of the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, to whom he sent his impressions every day. He was immediately enchanted by the city’s museums, churches and art galleries, but he made their acquaintance gradually, almost tenderly. He would stroll around in the early morning before returning to his work table around 11 a.m. “I cannot begin to tell you how glorious the perfect tranquility of the evenings is, when all you can hear is the distant sound of the waters of the Arno as they tumble or flow down an incline. One can’t imagine a more comfortable or suitable place to work.”

Tchaikovsky never forgot Florence, and in the early 1890s, after the triumphant premiere of Sleeping Beauty, he returned to his “dream city.” There, he composed most of The Queen of Spades and began his String Sextet, a work promised four years earlier to the president of the Imperial Chamber Music Society in Saint Petersburg. After dashing through the conception of the opera, Tchaikovsky made much slower progress with the sextet. In June of 1890, he wrote to the pianist Alexander Siloti, “I have the constant feeling that instead of writing for six voices, I am writing an orchestral transcription for six instruments.” To his brother, he confided, “It requires six independent and equal voices. It’s incredibly difficult!”

The sextet was first performed privately in Moscow in November 1891 in the presence of Alexander Glazunov and Anatoly Lyadov , who had some reservations about the last two movements. Tchaikovsky confidently made some revisions and, at last satisfied, gave the score to his publisher in June. The definitive version was premiered in Saint Petersburg six months later.

Somewhere between a quartet and a symphony for strings (fully justifying the decision here to record the piece in a larger version, heard in an orchestral transcription by Yuli Turovsky), Souvenir de Florence basks in a contagious joie de vivre, despite its minor key. This is how Tchaikovsky describes the work in a letter from 1892: “The first movement must be played with great passion and spirit, the second singingly, the third facetiously, and the fourth gaily and determinedly.”

The first movement, a rondo set to a waltz rhythm, seems to draw its inspiration from various popular songs. The second opens with a chorale that fades away before a theme that one might believe was taken from Shakespeare’s world, which inspired so many of Tchaikovsky’s most successful works. The ensuing “Allegro moderato” admirably conveys a melancholy so typical of the Russian soul, the strings going so far as to imitate the sound of balalaikas. The finale includes a fugato in which Tchaikovsky apparently took particular pride.

Tchaïkovsky: String Quartet No.1 in D, Op. 11

While Souvenir de Florence proved to be Tchaikovsky’s final chamber music work, his String Quartet in D, Op. 11 is an example of his excellent early efforts in this line. With this work, dated 1871—and the first string quartet written by a Russian composer—, Tchaikovsky came very close to pure music and achieved a remarkable structural balance, brilliantly exposed on this recording in a transcription from Yuli Turovsky.

Rooted in a Schubert-like style, the opening “Moderato e semplice” has broad, classical proportions, counterbalanced by an asymmetry of details, such as the syncopated first theme or the fluctuating time signatures of the second, which give the movement a sense of great freedom. The rich textures are attained through a contrapuntal treatment of the material.

The second movement, freely adapted from a folk song, is one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works. Its arrangements are numerous and include one for cello and string orchestra that Tchaikovsky wrote himself 15 years later. If the movement’s popularity exasperated him at times—”They don’t want to hear anything else!”—it was nevertheless a performance of this movement that marked one of the most memorable moments of his career. “In my entire life, I have perhaps never been so flattered and my composer’s pride has never been so moved as when Leo Tolstoy, sitting beside me, shed tears upon hearing the ‘Andante’ of my first string quartet,” he wrote in his journal ten years later.

The charming scherzo alternates duple and triple rhythms, while the completely contrasting trio features a certain rhythmic rigidity, achieved primarily through superposition.

The finale unravels and reweaves two themes, the first bright and festive, the second lyrical and typically Russian. Tchaikovsky would go on to write two other string quartets, but for most people, the first remains the Tchaikovsky quartet.

© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen

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