Although only five years separate Tchaikovsky’s first and last string quartets, they are stylistically very different. The First, written in 1871, epitomises the composer’s remarkable gift for melody, not least in the famous Andante cantabile, while the Third is one of Tchaikovsky’s works which bears an intensely personal emotional burden. The pair feature on the Heath Quartet’s Harmonia Mundi debut in clean, assured performances.
‘Why always the Andante? They do not seem to want to know anything else!’, complained Tchaikovsky to his brother, Modest. The second movement of the String Quartet No 1 spawned myriad arrangements and is easily the most popular movement from his string quartet output. Based on an old folksong Tchaikovsky heard in Kamenka, the composer reported that it brought Leo Tolstoy to tears. The Heath Quartet’s account is rather dry-eyed, however, stressing the lyrical over the melancholy compared with the Borodin Quartet’s more sentimental reading for Teldec. The Heath’s sound is bright and without undue vibrato, which gives their playing a slightly cool edge for this repertoire. The Scherzo is light on its feet and credit is due for taking the exposition repeat in the finale (unlike the Borodin or Utrecht quartets).
The Third Quartet was composed in 1876 in memory of Ferdinand Laub, who had played first violin in the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets. ‘Nobody draws strains out of the violin that touch the soul so deeply, are so strong and powerful and also so tender and caressing’, wrote the composer. The Heath Quartet’s careful attention to dynamics pays dividends in the introspective first movement, which is almost symphonic in style, plunging us into a very different world to the First Quartet. The second movement bustles in a lively fashion, without labouring the humour.
Tchaikovsky seems to draw on Russian Orthodox chant in the third-movement Andante funebre e doloroso. The Heath Quartet don’t hang around here, with rather a purposeful tread for a funeral march. There’s deeper pain to be mined here, especially in the Utrecht Quartet’s excellent reading, but the finale brings the quartet to an exuberant close. (Mark Pullinger / Gramophone)