Čiurlionis Quartet

String Quartet in C minor
String Quartet No.3
String Quartet No.3 in E flat minor, Op.30

Čiurlionis Quartet
[Jonas Tankevičius & Darius Dikšaitis (violins);Gediminas Dačinskas (viola) & Saulius Lipčius (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 March, 2005
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Although the Čiurlionis Quartet has been in existence for some 35 years, its visits to the UK cannot have been frequent, thus making this programme of rarely heard works more than welcome.

It was inevitable that the quartet’s eponymous composer be featured, and rightly so – as the reputation of Mikolajus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911) rests on the piano music and, to a lesser degree, orchestral tone poems that he managed to complete in his brief life. Yet he was also an accomplished artist and poet – and, on the basis of this three-movement torso of a String Quartet that was seemingly left unfinished in 1903, he had something to offer in other musical genres.

Those who know Čiurlionis through the Scriabin-cum-Szymanowski tonal richness of his piano and orchestral music will have been surprised at the Classical discipline in evidence here. Thus a taut and compact Allegro moderato is succeeded by a restrained and gently poignant Andante, before a brief and teasingly archaic Menuetto brings about an all too provisionalconclusion. This ensemble must have played the work on many occasions, and the musicians relaxed unanimity made the most of its refined expressive contrasts and intricate contrapuntal exchanges. If there are sketches remaining of the putative finale, perhaps a sympathetic musicologist might like to essay a completion?

Whereas Čiurlionis left just this one unfinished Quartet, Villa-Lobos composed 18 such works as part of his voluminous output. No.3 (1917) dates from his first phase of quartet writing and draws freely on the folk-music of his native Brazil over the course of four, classically-conceived but by no means so executed movements. In its post-Impressionist harmonies, the robust Allegro states its Francophile leanings unambiguously yetnon-slavishly; such as were intensified in the rapt Adagio, replete with bittersweet exchanges that uncannily prefigure the quartet writing of Bax and Bridge. In between comes a scherzo whose largely pizzicato discourse and fluid metre was no doubt inspired by the ‘Pipócas’ {popcorn!) alluded to in the subtitle, and the work closes with a vigorous Allegro that fails only in wrapping-up the work’s loose-ends. There are several later Villa-Lobos quartets whose absence from the repertoire is, to say the least, unfortunate.

The Čiurlionis Quartet has seemingly made something of a speciality of this composer in recent seasons, and the understanding of his idiom was never less than assured; as is the Quartet’s playing in general – a far cry from the soloistic over-projection that mars many of today’s ensembles. You would be hard put to hear a more natural or unforced account of Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet than here; important with a work which suffers in part from that striving after profundity that often affects the composer’s larger instrumental pieces.

The opening movement was well held together formally, and if itsprolix sonata process does not always make the most of the slowintroduction’s thematic potential, this was no fault of the players. The scherzo worked well as a lightly-spun intermezzo, while the Andante funèbre – an invocation to the departed Nicholas Rubinstein – drew real gravity from its allusions to Orthodox chant. The finale never quite succeeds in squaring the emotional circle – though by not overstating its affirmation, the Čiurlionis brought it expressively into line with the work as a whole.

Overall, then, an impressive showing by a group which clearly deserves the reputation here that it enjoys in Central and Northern Europe. An insouciant tango by Piazzolla ended the evening in fine style, and left one hoping for a return visit from the Čiurlionis Quartet before too long.

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