Tuesday , April 16 2024
nash ensemble Tchaikovsky Korngold

Music Review: Nash Ensemble – ‘Tchaikovsky & Korngold: String Sextets’

When a string ensemble grows past four and five members and attains sextet status, composing for the group seems to reach a tipping point. Composers must start thinking orchestrally – going beyond the purely timbral and technical characteristics of the violin, viola and cello to unfold a wider color palette. Sextet works are rare. Even Mozart, who brought the string quintet to its divine apotheosis, never undertook one. Brahms wrote just two, Dvořák one. Writing for pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, Tchaikovsky said, “six independent yet homogenous voices…is unimaginably difficult.”

A Late Masterpiece from Tchaikovsky…

Tchaikovsky wrote Souvenir de Florence Op. 70, his only string sextet, in the early 1890s, the final years of his life. An excellent new recording from London’s Nash Ensemble pairs it with the one string sextet of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the D Major Op. 10, written during the years of World War I, when the composer was not yet 20. The two make a pleasing pairing.

All the colors of the instruments burst into view at the start of the opening “Allegro con spirito” of the Souvenir de Florence. The turbulent energy sustains right through the acceleration at the end. The musicians begin the melodious “Andante” with graceful buoyancy and impart a canon-like depth to the central minor-key section. When the first theme returns with the melody in the cello, we’ve entered somewhat darker waters, this time driven by a more anxious pizzicato accompaniment than we hear at the outset. Sections flow curiously one into another so captivatingly that you may be surprised that fully 10 minutes have passed.

nash ensemble tchaikovsky korngold

The “Allegro moderato” is alternately charming and intensely serious, dance-like and gutsy. You can hear Tchaikovsky calling upon hard-won layers of compositional experience and technique. The movement’s folk-like feeling flowers more brightly in the final “Allegro vivace,” whose high spirits encompass melody and romance, counterpoint, and fugal complexity, all brought to sparkling life in this performance. The density of the last few minutes even recall Beethoven’s advances in the string quartet repertoire.

…and an Early One from Erich Wolfgang Korngold

With his String Sextet, Korngold, writing a scant generation later, is first and foremost solid proof of the composer’s precocious talent. The first movement alone carries mystery, romance, and suspense, with complex structure and seemingly endless resources of melody. The mesmerizing Adagio enfolds the listener with plangent melody, unexpected harmonies, and a sense of spaciousness. The musicians take what strikes me as exactly the right approach, finding the eeriness (as in the weird parallel sevenths toward the end) as much as the songfulness and sweetness.

Playful and even capricious, yet graceful and elegant, the Intermezzo has a restless quality in this rendition: Where is it going? It doesn’t allow one to settle into anything, but takes fascinating turns this way and that. Korngold’s imaginative force is on full display in the Nash Ensemble’s performance.

The Presto Finale, marked “As fast as possible with fire and humor,” has much of both here, and if this is as fast as the ensemble could manage, it’s quite enough, and nothing feels rushed. They achieve an orchestral richness in the slowed-down double- and triple-stop section before the piece ends on a rather abrupt happy note.

Tchaikovsky & Korngold: String Sextets from the Nash Ensemble is out March 1 on Hyperion Records and available now for pre-order.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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