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Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings; Shostakovich: String Quartet No 2

Scottish Ensemble
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Recording details: December 2013
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Produced by John Fraser
Engineered by Calum Malcolm
Release date: February 2015
Total duration: 65 minutes 26 seconds

Cover artwork: Cover image by Mavrosh Stratiotis

Tchaikovsky's Serenade for strings is imbued with the classical spirit of Mozart and contains some strikingly effective scoring and an exhilarating Finale. To these the Scottish Ensemble brings a level of precision and finish you would rather expect from a string quartet, something particularly evident in the elegiac third movement, one of Tchaikovsky's most inspired musical moments. Also recorded here is darkly wonderful chamber transcription of Shostakovich's epic String Quartet No 2.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The two works … give the listener much food for thought about Russia in their juxtaposition.' (Gramophone)

'The Scottish Ensemble’s crystal-clear playing is a joy' (The Guardian)» More

'Superbly virtuosic' (The Times)» More

'This is a performance that highlights Tchaikovsky’s inventiveness and skill in crafting a piece for strings alone, while at the same time generating a real sense of inspired spontaneity' (The Telegraph)» More
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) is often portrayed as a tormented soul, supposedly laying bare his neuroses in music of extreme emotional charge—for instance, fate-obsessed works such as the mature symphonies. Yet an equally important element of his creative persona is derived from his worship of Mozart’s music as the epitome of eighteenth-century poise and elegance, qualities which he felt had been overshadowed by the extravagances of late nineteenth-century Romanticism. His love of Mozartean grace found its most perfect expression in his own inimitable ballet music, but other major works imbued with a Classical spirit include the Variations on a rococo theme for cello and orchestra, the Serenade for strings and the four orchestral suites (the last of which, Mozartiana, comprises transcriptions of shorter works by Mozart). In the Serenade (1880), Tchaikovsky’s deeply lyrical instinct is perfectly tempered by Classical grace and restraint. Clearly his decision to compose a serenade was influenced by the genre’s strong eighteenth-century connections. Famously neurotic about his own works, he wrote of the Serenade: ‘I composed the Serenade from inner conviction. It is a heartfelt piece, and so I dare to think it is not lacking in real qualities’. He wrote this Serenade (as well as the '1812' Overture) while staying on his sister’s estate in Kamenka, a rural situation in the Kiev Province of Ukraine which he increasingly used as a retreat. Tchaikovsky first heard his new work on 3 December 1880 during a visit to the Moscow Conservatoire after a long absence—a surprise performance arranged by its musicians almost a year before the official premiere was conducted by Eduard Nápravnik. Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky’s former teacher, had been consistently critical of the way in which he had developed as a composer, yet he greatly admired the Serenade, describing it as ‘Tchaikovsky’s best piece’.

The Serenade begins with a noble and expansive introduction which eventually subsides to pianissimo, with an allegro moderato following after a brief pause. As the term ‘sonatina’ indicates, this is not a fully-fledged sonata-form movement with a central development section. Here, the only development or elaboration is heard immediately after each theme. The first of these themes is yearning in character, its continuation incorporating a surprisingly animated and agile cello part, and leading to some brilliant dovetailing between string sections. The second theme is delightfully buoyant, initially requiring great delicacy but subsequently building to a fortissimo restatement. A shortened recall of the introduction concludes this wide-ranging movement. The following waltz—a dance-form upon which Tchaikovsky left his own highly individual imprint—is seductive and graceful, while the scoring, strikingly effective throughout the entire work, is here especially a model of clarity and finesse. One example of Tchaikovsky’s restraint is his sparing use of violins playing in thirds, a combination which could easily become cloying. The very end of the movement is delightfully insouciant. Several of the themes in the Serenade are disarmingly simple, like the waltz melody which is derived from a mere scale. Similarly, the opening of the ‘Elegia’ is a sequence of ascending phrases, all beginning with a scale-pattern. A glorious second theme introduced by first violins (molto cantabile) is developed towards two impassioned climaxes, characterized by noble restraint. A quasi-cadenza for muted first violins heralds the recall of the opening, and the movement ends with a two-octave ascent to quiet harmonics.

The last movement begins with an andante introduction (played with mutes), the final notes of which anticipate the main theme of the ensuing allegro con spirito. Tchaikovsky did not belong to the strongly nationalist group of Russian composers and used Russian-folk song only when it suited him, but both the theme of the introduction and the first theme of the allegro con spirito are actual Russian-folk songs. In 1868–9 Tchaikovsky had arranged these melodies—‘In the Green Meadow’ and ‘Under the Green Apple-Tree’ respectively—as part of his piano-duet collection Fifty Russian Folk-Songs. Unlike the first movement, this exhilarating ‘Finale’ includes a proper—indeed strenuous—development section, based on both the folk song and the lyrical second subject. Towards the end of the ‘Finale’, an abrupt cut-off is followed by a tremendous restatement of the opening melody of the Serenade. Finally, Tchaikovsky spells out the very close relationship of this melody’s first four notes (C-B-A-G) to the main theme of the finale, before returning to the original tempo for the brilliant conclusion. Sadly, Tchaikovsky’s only other work for string orchestra is a rarely heard Elegy of 1884, although the sextet Souvenir de Florence and the ‘Andante cantabile’ quartet-movement are sometimes played in string-orchestra arrangements.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) dedicated the second of his fifteen string quartets to fellow-composer and friend Vissarion Shebalin (1902–63). More than twice the length of the First Quartet, the Second Quartet is the second longest in the series after No 15. It is one of only four Shostakovich quartets which adhere to the conventional four-movement structure. Shostakovich composed the Second Quartet in September 1944 while staying at the Soviet Composers’ House at Ivanovo, located about 150 miles west of Moscow—a government-sponsored retreat for composers and writers, and a favourite place for creativity and recreation.

Roughly contemporary with his Second Piano Trio, the Second Quartet is similarly representative of a period—the war years—in which chamber compositions proliferated in Russia. Another feature of this period in Russian music is the assimilation of folk-music influences, a trend (encouraged by the Soviet authorities) which began when many composers evacuated to far-flung Soviet republics became familiar with ethnic music from those regions. Vissarion Shebalin himself composed a ‘Slavonic’ Quartet (his fifth, dating from 1942) incorporating Serbian, Slovak, Ukrainian and Ural-Russian melodies and generally considered to be among the most successful works of the period. Shostakovich, however, found his most instinctive source of inspiration in Jewish culture. His strong empathy with the Jews and their history of persecution is most evident in such works as From Jewish Folk Poetry and the Thirteenth Symphony (especially its opening movement ‘Babi Yar’), but his interest in Jewish folk-music probably dates from the 1940s and was sustained throughout his career. Characteristic Jewish inflections may be heard in almost every one of his fifteen quartets. At that time—the early '40s—he became very familiar with particular works by Jewish composers including the opera Rothschild’s Violin by his composition pupil Venyamin Fleischmann and various works by the outstanding Polish-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg. During this time, Shostakovich and Weinberg began what proved to be a long and mutually rewarding friendship, confiding in each other and regularly exchanging scores.

In connection with the composition of the Second Quartet, evidence of Shostakovich’s working methods is revealed by Mikhail Meyerovich, a fellow-composer who spent time with him at Ivanovo:

I discovered him to be a very lively man who was always in motion. I wondered when he did the actual composing. The Quartet [No 2] was written in under four weeks before my very eyes. But nobody saw him at the desk or at the piano. I was intrigued and began to observe him closely. He would play football and fool around with friends; then he would suddenly disappear. After forty minutes or so he would turn up again. ‘How are you doing? Let me kick the ball.’ Then we would have dinner and drink some wine and take a walk, and he would be the life and soul of the party. Every now and then he would disappear for a while and then join us again. Towards the end of my stay he disappeared altogether. We didn’t see him for a week. Then he turned up, unshaven and looking exhausted. He said: ’Let’s go to a cottage with a piano in it.’ He played us the Second Quartet … the score had that very days date on it [20 September].

Shostakovich himself admitted that ‘I worry about the lightning speed with which I compose’ and as his son Maxim recalled: ‘My father always said “I think long; I write fast”.’

At the time of composing his Second String Quartet, Shostakovich had by this point already composed eight symphonies, compared with only one completed quartet. His next thirteen string quartets were to follow in rapid succession. As in his Piano Quintet of 1940, he gives a title to each movement of the Second Quartet. Although the quartet medium is traditionally the preserve of a composer’s more private or intimate expression, this particular work is relatively public in tone. For instance, almost the entire exposition of the first movement, in which the second main theme is related to the first, has the dynamic forte or fortissimo. This movement (‘Overture’) begins forcefully in A major, a key which Shostakovich specialist Judith Kuhn has aptly described as ‘more an aspiration than a presence in the quartet as a whole’. Little ‘squeeze-box’ crescendos are a feature of the opening and recur throughout the movement. The development begins with the opening theme transformed into a calm waltz but eventually becomes aggressive to the point of savagery. One striking feature of the recapitulation, not uncommon in Shostakovich’s quartets, is the significantly altered character of the first theme. This theme returns transposed down the octave and with the original B naturals changed to B flats; its initial brightness now diminished and its character as though disfigured by the storm of the development. The theme’s original character isn’t restored to the key of A major until the coda.

The second movement begins with an extended section of violin recitative (adagio), accompanied by sustained chords. Melodically this contains elements from the second main theme of the ‘Overture’, but above all there is a strong flavour of a Jewish cantor’s lament. The central section (‘Romance’) is a kind of slow waltz which, after a massive climax, recedes into the return of the recitative. After the final phrase of violin recitative (now muted) the movement ends with an innocent perfect cadence. Regarding the third movement, which fits comfortably into neither sonata-form nor scherzo-and-trio form, Shostakovich disagreed with programme-note writer Daniel Zhitomirsky, saying ‘… the epithet femininity is far from suitable. More than anything else this is a valse macabre … [it] should be compared, for example, to the Waltz from the Third Suite by Tchaikovsky’. Muted throughout, it has a second theme derived from the opening of the recitative from the previous movement. In the middle of this waltz the music shows its formidable teeth in a long fortissimo passage intensified by many successive down-bows. During this passage Shostakovich quotes from his hitherto unperformed Fourth Symphony.

The finale consists of a theme of Russian-folk song character with thirteen variations but opens with an adagio introduction which alternates between unisons and first violin passages of improvisatory character. In the first three variations the theme is clearly retained, though with different accompaniment, but thereafter instability, fragmentation and disruption become increasingly dominant, with aggressive elements recalling crises in previous movements. For instance, in Variation 11 frenetic viola interjections are pitted against high-pitched violins marked fff and a cello ostinato. Twice the introduction is recalled—firstly in viola/cello octaves—then again, after another waltz (Variation 12) at pianissimo. Variation 13 brings the first full statement of the theme since Variation 3 (and a subtle suggestion of the transition to the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). The coda marks the final return of the introduction (now molto espressivo) and a last statement in augmentation of the first half of the theme, leading to the resolute, defiant ending in A minor. Closely associated with Shostakovich’s works, premiering thirteen of his fifteen quartets, the Beethoven Quartet gave the first performance of the Second Quartet on 14 November 1944 in the great hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic and recorded the work the following month.

There are many arrangements of Shostakovich’s quartets for string orchestra, most notably Rudolf Barshai’s transcriptions of Nos 1, 3, 4, 8 and 10. Jonathan Morton, Artistic Director of Scottish Ensemble and transcriber of this version of the Quartet No 2 has written: ‘The second quartet intrigued me because of its large, epic scale and the richness of its sound-world. I also thought the relentless build-up of tension in the variations which conclude the work would be exciting with a bigger group.’ This particular quartet, with its notable richness of texture, lends itself to performances by a larger ensemble, while another advantage of any string-orchestra arrangement—from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge onwards—is the opportunity it provides for a different type of concert audience to be exposed to a masterpiece from the chamber repertoire.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2015

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