While the St. Petersburg String Quartet has played previously at Maverick Concerts, its performance on Sunday, July 10, was its first in at least a decade. The ensemble made certain of its welcome by programming works by two very popular Russian composers. Between them, it gave us a more contemporary work that the Russians might well have admired. In his introductory remarks, Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt drew attention to the craftsmanship of Borodin’s familiar String Quartet No. 2, which he said was as elegantly constructed as a Mozart quartet. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I must admit that while bathing in Borodin’s gorgeous melodies, I had never paid much attention to the mechanics of his work, and it certainly is beautifully put together.
The St. Petersburg String Quartet, all Russian musicians, is now resident in the U.S. It has lost none of its grasp of Russian idiom. Its playing of Borodin used plenty of rubato, and its tonal quality was as lush as you’d ever want to hear. Yet there wasn’t a trace of sentimentality throughout the work, and the very good balance of the musicians (strong viola and cello to match the violins) kept me aware of the texture of the music. It’s not just a bunch of beautiful tunes strung together!
Alexander Platt is the twin brother of composer Russell Platt, which is our good fortune. The latter’s music has been heard at Maverick before, and I’ve always enjoyed it. My only complaint about his Quintet for Bassoon and Strings, written in 1995, is that it was rather short for its emotional content (nineteen minutes in this performance). The slow movement is literally a transcription of a song, and I felt it could use some expansion. Both Platts spoke of the music as Copland-esque, which it was if you consider only Copland’s “American” style. For a convenient description I’d call it neo-romantic. The music goes through a real emotional journey in a completely convincing progression. The bassoon has a somewhat soloistic role (and even a mesmerizing cadenza in the finale), but through most of the work it is integrated into the quartet texture.
Peter Kolkay, a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, is one of the best bassoonists I’ve heard. He plays with very beautiful tone, remarkable facility, and a consistently expressive outlook that made him a joy to hear. The StPSQ seemed completely comfortable with its role.
Tchaikovsky’s Second and Third Quartets, like the Second and Third Piano Concertos, are played so seldom they almost might as well not exist. In all of these cases I always wonder why. The Quartet No. 2, in F, Op. 22, is thoroughly characteristic Tchaikovsky, with the exception of the challenging, highly chromatic opening which is as out of character (and as prophetic) as the opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet. Perhaps it is the melancholy tinge of this music that prevents it from being a hit, but that character hasn’t hurt the “Pathétique” Symphony and it shouldn’t hurt this remarkable work. It’s got the occasional folk dance moments and the Russian sorrowfulness that Tchaikovsky lovers cherish. Performances like this one, idiomatic, expressive, unexaggerated, and beautifully integrated, make the case for the music as well as anyone might want. Now, how about some more performances of this and the Third!