Journeys Tchaikovsky Schoenberg Emerson String QuartetJourneys

Emerson String Quartet

With Paul Neubauer & Colin Carr

Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker: violins; Lawrence Dutton: viola; David Finckel: cello

Sony, 2013

Journeys is the album that the Emerson String Quartet devotes to two sextet written by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Arnold Schoenberg and, through their music, evokes many different kinds of journeys. The first is a real one, Tchaikovsky’s trip to Florence, the city where he composed his opera The Queen of Spades and where, according to his brother and biographer Modest, he sketched the first theme of the Andante of the sextet Souvenir de Florence, the one presented in this recording.

The second journey is a inner one and it is represented by Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, a work based on the story of a promenade through the wood and to the psychological journey of the two characters from anguish to acceptance. Next to these, almost obvious, themes that constitute the guiding thread of the album, there is another kind of journey, explained in the booklet by violinist Eugene Drucker: «Souvenirs de Florence and Transfigured Night were composed during the same decade, and to listen to them in succession is to participate in a journey from tonality to the brink of atonality, from the nineteenth century to the cusp of the twentieth, from Romantic expression to Expressionism».

Tchaikovsky sketched the first draft to the sextet Souvenir de Florence in the summer of 1887, but completed it only between June and July 1890 (and revised the last two movements between 1891 and 1892) to thank the St Petersburg Chamber Music Society for his election to honorary member in 1886. Despite Modest’s aforementioned assertion, the composer never connected the piece with the city in his correspondence and therefore some of its references remain obscure.

Schoenberg wrote the sextet Verklärte Nacht in 1899, but it was not performed in its entirety until 1902 because of the disapproval of the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein, which could not accept the innovations of the sextet although it had favourably received Schoenberg’s string quartet in D major two years before. Verklärte Nacht is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, a German romantic poet that provided inspiration for many of Schoenberg’s works, as the songs Mannesbangen, Warnung, Erwartung, Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm and Erhebung, and its musical models are Wagner and Brahms.

The Emerson String Quartet, with the addition of Paul Neubauer as second viola and of Colin Carr as second cello, realizes an original performance of the two sextets, taking advantage on the contrast between these extremely different works. Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir is not played as a tranquil work and awakes the attention of the listener from the energetic attack of the first movement, that set immediately its tone, which is vivacious and full of life, especially in the Allegro con spirito and in the Allegro vivace, with some pauses of elegiac contemplation at the end of the second movement (Adagio cantabile e con moto) and in the third (Allegretto moderato). Schoenberg’s sextet is more varied and sombre than Tchaikovsky’s and a veil of resignation chracterizes it from the beginning to the end. The greatest merit of the ensemble has been to highlight its colours with clarity and with an abandonment that in Tchaikovsky was missed.

In this way, the parallel between the two works is virtually perfect and they complete each other as the two ideal halves of a journey: the first represents the enthusiasm, the curiosity for new things and experiences, while the second is a meditation on what has been learned. In this sense, the different inspiration of the two works is providential and effective.

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