Musicians: Navarra String Quartet, David Adams (viola), Alice Neary (cello)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
This excellent concert by the Navarra String Quartet was the second in the monthly series of six making up the Leeds International Chamber Season on the theme of Russia in Revolution. The season places Russian chamber music in its historical and artistic context, in the case of the Navarra concert the contrasting musical worlds of Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late 19th Century.
Even the slightest work in the programme had a fascinating back-story. Wealthy music publisher Mitrofan Belyayev organised a musical concert every Friday at his St. Petersburg mansion, with himself playing viola in a talented amateur quartet, and regularly included a short new work by one of the composers who became known as the “Belyayev Circle”. In 1899, sixteen of these pieces, none lasting more than ten minutes, were published as Les Vendredis, including works by little-known composers alongside the likes of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. The Navarra Quartet played three of these “Fridays” by now-obscure composers (Anatoly Liadov the best known) for all of which the words “charming” and “unpretentious”, both used in the programme, proved a perfect description. Felix Blumenfeld’s Sarabande was the most substantial and the most original.
Anton Arensky, however, after graduating from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, moved to Moscow and taught at the Conservatoire where he failed to recognise the talent of Rachmaninov and Scriabin. His String Quartet No. 2, which began the Navarra’s programme, proved to be a magnificent memorial to Tchaikovsky, by turns elegiac, lyrical, dramatic and majestic. The melancholy tone was enhanced by the unusual instrumentation, a second cello replacing the second violin. The Navarra’s cellist being unavailable, having just become a father, that meant two guest cellists: David Waterman of the Endellion Quartet took his place in the quartet at short notice and Alice Neary, as scheduled, played the additional cello part. The late change in personnel in no way affected the precision, understanding and attack of the quartet’s performances throughout the evening.
Each of the three movements of Arensky’s quartet has a distinctive character, but all of them are steeped in Russian traditions, as distinct from the westernised elegance of the Belyayev miniatures. The first movement, passionate and expressive, is topped and tailed by the solemnity of an Ortodox funeral chant; the second is a series of contrasted variations on a Tchaikovsky melody of great charm; the remarkable third movement brings in Orthodox chant again, but also the folk song, Slava Bogu, treated to splendid fugal writing and declaimed by the two cellos to the insistent accompaniment of violin and viola. All in all, the performance of this relatively unfamiliar work was a revelation.
The most familiar work in the programme was Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet, misleadingly known as Souvenir de Florence. He happened to be in Florence when he noted down the melody of the slow movement, but this is not one of those pieces full of local colour so popular in the 19th century. The exuberant finale, with the musicians clearly relishing the “race for the line” frenzy of the closing pages, may have the rhythm of the dance, but the spirit is Russian – no tarantellas here!
In view of the dedication of the Arensky piece, it was interesting to note the resemblances between that and the String Sextet, notably in instrumental colour, with Tchaikovsky’s contrasts in the tonal and expressive range of the cellos particularly striking.
Reviewed on 28 November 2017 | Image: Contributed