Occasionally I buy books just because the cover looks nice. Occasionally I buy albums just because the cover looks nice. Volume 1 of Grechaninov’s string quartets was a case in point. I was innocently strolling through the Apple Music Store when that gaily colored cover hit me: a painting by 19th century painter Louis Valtat. Luckily, the music matched the cover and I liked volume 1 so much, that – in all my innocence and without the hint of a bad conscience – I immediately bought volume 2 as well.
A multinational ensemble
As you might suspect from my previous posts, I really like chamber music, mostly because I like the warm sound of the cello. I guess, I would have opted to learn to play the cello if hadn’t already fallen in love with the piano.
The fact that I present the Utrecht String Quartet’s recordings of Grechaninov’s quartets (Vol. 1/Vol. 2) has much to do with my romance with chamber music. The Dutch ensemble exists since 1985 and includes the Finnish violinist Eeva Koskinen, the Australian violinist Katherine Routley, the Russian viola player Mikhail Zemtsov and the German cellist Sebastian Koloski. They have a very wide repertoire ranging from the Vienna classics to 20th century composers like Dmitri Shostakovich, György Ligeti and Benjamin Britten.
Revolution and emigration
Grechaninov, born in Moscow in 1864, is an interesting composer. He is chiefly known for having written liturgical music. As a child, he enjoyed participating in Catholic and Orthodox masses because of the music. He had studied composition first under Aron Arensky, but he found his teacher unsympathetic and switched to Nikolay Rimski-Korsakov. He composed a huge number of liturgical pieces, mostly vocal pieces. This won him in 1910 an annual pension from the Czar. Unfortunately the pension was rescinded after the October Revolution. Grechaninov also failed to convince the Patriarch to allow organ music during Russian-Orthodox services.
In 1925, the composer moved to Paris. By then he had already written the vast majority of his œuvre. In 1939, he moved to the United States and more religious music followed. The composition of the four mentioned string quartets took place over a large span of time: Op. 2 saw the light in 1894, Op. 70 followed in 1913 and Op. 75 in 1915. Op. 124 was written in 1929. Besides chamber and religious music, Grechaninov composed some symphonic works, music for children, piano pieces and several operas, mostly forgotten today.
Between solemn and vibrant
I will try to characterize the four quartets, and I will start with the last one. Op. 124, written in D minor, is joyful, vibrant, fraught with great expectations. The first quartet, written in G major, is rather fresh, spring-like and though it has the opus number 2, it is by no means a timid beginners’ work. It is pleasant to hear and exudes the vitality and self-confidence of a grown-up man. Op. 70 and 75, written in C minor and D minor respectively are both rather solemn. Does this help?
Occasionally I find myself in a situation where – as a blogger blogging about music – I would just like to say: “Listen to this! I like that piece.” In this case, I like all four with a slight preference for number 4. Coming up with good arguments to convince you to listen to it looks pretty hard right now since my taste is not necessarily yours. I will try something else this time. Few people know Grechaninov. You know him now. Which puts you in position to say at the right place at the right moment to the right people, quite casually: Oh, by the way, I recently listened to one of Grechaninov’s string quartets, really nice! And you will shine, shine, shine…
© Charles Thibo