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This has been a banner year for music lovers to hear a broad spectrum of music played by the renowned St. Petersburg String Quartet. It is too bad that Greensboro still lags far behind the Triangle in developing a large following for chamber music. There were too few warm bodies in Christ United Methodist Church January 14 for a solid program of the central repertoire as part of the Music for a Great Space's well-planned series.
Second violinist David Chernyavsky announced that there had been a change of personnel since the Quartet's recent concerts in the Triangle. Violist Aleksey Koptev, a graduate of the NCSA and Indiana University School of Music, had had to leave the ensemble to return to Russia because of family responsibilities. After auditioning three short-listed candidates, Boris Vayner was the unanimous choice as violist. He is Assistant Principal Violist with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. As a member of the Krasny String Quartet, he has recorded all the quartets of Vissarion Shebalin for Sony Classical. First violinist Alla Aranovskaya and cellist Leonid Shukaev are the only remaining founding members.
The concert opened with a repeat from the ensemble's recent double-header at Duke University — three selections from Five Novelettes, Op. 15, by the Romantic Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. These folk-based pieces served as ideal palette cleansers for the feast to follow. "Orientale" is based on Georgian (Russian) folk music. It opens and closes with fast and vigorous rhythms. Sandwiched in between are sweet melodies and a slower section that evokes the sound of viols or perhaps some Georgian folk instrument. There is a chant-like episode, revealed by the ascetic viola of Vayner. The slow "Interludium in modo antico" is plush, with rich melodies that frequently soared from Shuraev's soulful cello. What deep and marvelous tone, and what bottomless pizzicatos! The viola had a larger share in "Al' Ungherese" that featured rhythmic portions with a schmaltzy slower section.
Wisely taking Christ Church's potential for lively resonance into account, the players took some segments of Ravel's ravishing Quartet in F Major slightly more slowly than usual and slower than I recall at their Piccolo Spoleto performance. Full range was given to the composer's wide kaleidoscope of color, and the finely judged pizzicatos in the second movement were outstanding in every way. Their Ravel was a model of clarity with every strand revealed. There was no pseudo-impressionist haze.
With seemingly inevitable choices of tempo and phrasing, the St. Petersburg's interpretation of Beethoven's Quartet in F, Op. 59/1 (Razumovsky), was completely satisfying. What a resplendent cello line! Precision of ensemble is widespread these days but the close unanimity between the two violinists was a wonder to the ear. Intonation – from individuals and the ensemble, overall — was outstanding.
In response to the warm reception by the audience, the quartet played a short piece, "A la Tchéque," by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a member of the lost generation of composers wiped out by the Nazis. He had studied with Reger, tried for a time to blend elements of the Second Viennese School with those of the Berlin Dadaists, and was strongly influenced by Janácek toward the end of his life. This short selection seemed an ironic treatment of traditional Czech folk rhythms and was a welcome addition to the repertoire.