Sunday 30 June 2013

Works for string sextet by Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg work exceptionally well together, especially when performed as wonderfully as the Emerson Quartet and Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr for Sony Classical

Whether or not Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)  and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) share a similar audience is rather a moot point. At first sight it would seem that there is no common ground between these composers despite their overlapping dates. By the time Tchaikovsky died at the young age of 53, Schoenberg was 19 years of age.

Had Tchaikovsky lived into his 70’s he would have easily made the 20th century though, no doubt, his compositional style would not have changed greatly. Schoenberg, of course, went on to abandon tonality and develop the twelve-tone technique.

Tchaikovsky, who was far more orientated towards Western music rather than the Russian nationalist school, could, of course, be pretty passionate in his music to a degree that, in the hands of the right performers, his music can sometimes sit well with Schoenberg’s early works that were still linked to late Romanticism.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence in D minor, Op.70 for String Sextet, written between 1887 and 1890, was first performed in St Petersburg in 1892 whereas

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, for string sextet was composed, in just three weeks, in 1899 and premiered in Vienna in March 1902. So it can be seen that, composition wise, the works are only separated by around nine years.

The juxtaposition of these two works is something that the Emerson Quartet  together with colleagues Paul Neubauer (viola) and Colin Carr (cello) have adopted for their new recording for Sony Classical entitled Journeys.


Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, some of which was written in that city, very much represents a journey, the composer’s journey to Italy. It is a passionate opening that this ensemble brings to the allegro con spirito of this work with nicely taut playing and some real power from the cellos. There is a real sweep and panache in this performance with the Emersons and colleagues showing such real passion and commitment in climaxes with great contrast between the sunny interludes and the passionate sections.

Such is the sonority in the opening of the Adagio cantabile e con moto that this could almost be a small string orchestra. It is beautifully played with so much interplay and conversation between instruments. There is a terrific fast central section and a terrific climax towards the coda that nevertheless ends quietly.

The very Slavic sounding Allegretto moderato sails along beautifully before gaining in passion with some terrifically fine playing, so crisp and precise. The lovely fleeting trio section scurries past and imperceptibly joins the main tune before a superb coda.

The dancing Allegro vivace also has a lovely Russian sounding theme with some lovely flowing and intertwining playing from the Emersons and their colleagues. As the movement progresses to a fugal section the Emersons are brilliant with wonderful ensemble and, when the beautifully sunny first subject returns, this ensemble brings such vibrancy.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht represents a journey of a different nature, that of a couple walking through a wood on a moonlit night. The girl tells her lover that she had conceived a child by another man. The man replies that the glory of the night and the warmth that exists between them will transfigure the child and make it his own.

There is a superbly done dark, mysterious opening to this performance of Verklärte Nacht, rising through strange harmonies to reveal the main theme. The pacing and dynamics are beautifully done, especially where the stings try to billow up but are cut off. It is in the ensemble’s subtle following of the changes in dynamics and tempi that marks out this performance. When the work reaches its tipping point there is a lovely cello melody, so finely and passionately played by the ensemble. When the music quietens to a hush this is a magical moment, with such lovely little nuances. The coda depicting, according to the composer, ‘the miracles of nature that have changed this night of tragedy into a transfigured night’ is brilliantly done and so beautifully depicts the moonlit night and nature.

These two pieces work exceptionally well together, especially when performed as wonderfully as this by the Emerson Quartet and their colleagues, Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr. I would have, perhaps, preferred a little more air around the players but this is, nevertheless, a fine recording.

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