Reinhold Glière (1875-1956)
String Quartet No.1 in A major Op.2 (1899/1900)
String Quartet No.2 in G minor Op.20 (1905)
Glière String Quartet
rec. 2020/2021
DUX 1706 [56]

Ever since the Symphony No.3 in B minor ‘Ilya Murometz’ lumbered into my musical consciousness about forty years ago I have had a musical soft-spot for its composer Reinhold Glière.  But for no good reason this affection has not stretched beyond his orchestral work and concerti, the ballets and the piano music.  Until now I have never listened to his chamber music which on the strength of the music and performances on this new disc is clearly my loss. 

Glière’s most famous works alongside the aforementioned symphony are the ballet The Red Poppy with its irresistibly buoyant Russian Sailor’s Dance and his Concerto for Coloratura Soprano.  All of these works were approved by the Soviet regime.  Glière was not a vociferous supporter of the Communist government but his natural, essentially conservative, musical idiom and use of folk-idioms and narratives was very much in line with the cultural ideals of the regime.  So by the time Glière died in 1956 his music could be heard as backward-looking at best.

However, roll back the clock by over half a century to the years when the two quartets were written and one’s perception of Glière is altered.  A quick look at his early opus numbers sees him working extensively in the field of string music honing and refining his technique of writing complex cohesive chamber music.  Hence his Opus 1, 7 and 11 are String Sextets, Opus 5 an Octet alongside the two quartets offered on this disc – Opus 2 and 20.  As an aside, as part of preparing this review I have now caught up with recordings of the second sextet and the octet and these works too are very attractive.  In terms of compositional technique and musical identity there is a considerable progression from the Op.2 Quartet of 1900 and the Op.20 five years later. 

The earlier work – String Quartet No.1 in A major Op.2 – shows a direct musical heritage with his teachers Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky and beyond them to other Nationalist Russian composers so Glazunov and even Borodin are audible influences and inspirations.  Glière’s writing for strings is very assured and effective.  This should not be that surprising given that aside from composition the violin was Glière’s instrument.  One observation – which perhaps explains the three sextets – is a rather unrelenting use of all of the instruments pretty much all of the time.  The result is a wonderfully lush and rich palette which is very effectively caught on this recording by the excellent eponymous Glière String Quartet in the well engineered DUX sound.  No venue for the recording is given but a session photograph in the booklet implies this was made in what looks like a small and unremarkable room.  This would explain the closeness – not oppressively so – of the recording but it has to be said the playing is passionate and full-toned – as well as virtuosic – in a manner that suits this music perfectly.

Both quartets follow the traditional four movement form although the earlier quartet has a second movement intermezzo-like scherzo followed by third movement theme and variations which is essentially a sombre movement albeit with dramatic interludes.  The work opens with a song-like viola solo which is soon passed around the quartet.  There is a Slavic accent to this melody and even more to the second subject although nothing in the liner or indeed online suggests these are anything except original melodies.  The way in which these melodies unfold is very reminiscent of Borodin – a kind of melodic stream of consciousness – although no shame to say they are not as memorable as the senior composer.  Both scores on this disc can be viewed on IMSLP – No.1 and No.2 which is useful to see Glière’s nimble manipulation of rhythm.  The second movement Allegro is mainly written in a ‘straight’ 1 in a bar dotted minim/half-note.  But Glière shifts accents and strong beats to give the listener a far less obvious sense of where the barlines are than the time signature would suggest.  Again this is a device favoured by fellow Russian composers so not exactly original or indeed unusual but the result is genuinely appealing.  As is the performance here – perhaps the Glière String Quartet emphasise drama over elegance – but I do like the sheer energy and dynamism of the playing throughout the disc.  A case in point is the second variation in the third movement [usefully the DUX disc gives each variation its own track] which is marked poco agitato within a basic tempo of crochet/quarter note = 96.  In this performance the “poco” becomes “molto” with a galloping demonic intensity that certainly reflects the thick writing and extreme dynamics Glière indicates.  The following variation – Andante – is strikingly different all long lyrical lines and mellifluous textures beautifully played and balanced here but perhaps a slightly more gossamer tone would emphasise the contrast to even greater effect.  The Vivace Scherzando Variation 4 again makes sharp dynamic contrasts which the quartet underplay – mainly the p and pp markings are too loud which results in technically very impressive playing that lacks a degree of the mercurial quality the score suggests.  The Andante coda to this movement is impressively handled both by composer and as played here – unusually brief and haunted after the drama that precedes it.  The finale again in a basic 3/4 time uses cross-accents and hemiola rhythms to trick the listener’s ear.  This is in the tradition of Russian “Festive Finales” and receives another fiery rather than festive interpretation here but it is undoubtedly exhilarating and ensures that the impact of the work which is in effect a student piece is maximised.

In direct comparison the String Quartet No.2 in G minor is a more substantive work and not just in terms of length; 31:53 to No.1’s 23:43 in these performances.  Musically Glière is more exploratory – the debt to the Russian Nationalists is still strong (the quartet was dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov as well) but in the closing two movements especially Glière experiments with melodies and harmonies that seem both folkloric if not Eastern in flavour.  Although Glière was born in Kiev the closing movement – titled Orientale – seems influenced by the cultures closer to the Caspian rather than Black Seas.  The orientalisms of the work occupy a similar fascination for things Eastern that intrigued Rimsky-Korsakov in Scheherazade and Borodin in his Steppes of Central Asia – perhaps rather superficial but certainly attractive.The music of the entire quartet is overtly more muscular than the earlier work and that certainly plays to the strengths of this quartet.  The closing pages have a driving galloping energy that is well and excitingly sustained here.  In this quartet the scherzo is placed third and again the folkloric element is very much to the fore from the open string drones on the second violin to the displaced rhythms and use of trills to suggest a folk-player’s ornamentation.  Again Glière tends to favour fairly heavy string textures throughout with frequent examples of double stopping or arpeggiated figurations deployed to thicken the four parts. 

The opening two movements are less consciously folk-inspired but there are again echoes of Borodin and in the first movement some passage writing that is very similar to parts of Smetana’s From My Life quartet.  In this quartet the second movement is a ‘true’ slow movement marked Andante which is very beautifully managed here – Glière shares the yearning melody primarily between the top and bottom instruments (more shades of the Borodin Nocturne?) with richly harmonised inner part writing but his writing demands an often orchestral intensity from the players and certainly that is delivered to powerful effect in this performance.  Indeed in terms of structure and the overall emotional arc of the work, this is a very satisfying piece with the balance of the movements well judged and the climaxes within each section intelligently placed and paced. 

There only appears to have been one other recording of these attractive and instantly appealing works which is something of a surprise.  There was a recording on Hungaraton from the Pulzus Quartet which I have not heard so cannot compare.  They would have to play extremely well to displace this impassioned and wholly committed performance.  The Glière String Quartet and indeed this entire production is something of a pan-European production.  The Vienna based quartet is made up of Ukrainian-Austrian and Polish-Austrian violinists, a German violist and a Hungarian cellist – all recorded on a Polish record label.  The accompanying booklet – with notes in Polish and English only – is attractively presented on good quality paper.  A definite part of the appeal is the inclusion of full-colour reproductions of six water-colour paintings of countryside across the seasons of the year by contemporary Polish artist Bartłomiej Michałowski who also has a biography and photograph in the booklet.  No reference is made to whether there is any creative link between music and paintings so they remain rather mysteriously beautiful.  The liner note itself is briefer than music (and a composer) of this unfamiliarity could benefit from.  Also, the English translation is fairly clumsy; “emotional micro-swings” or “significantly densified texture” are just a couple of clunky examples.  In performing terms, the virtuosity of the entire quartet is never in doubt and neither is the dynamism and verve of their playing.  If the lighter textures could have been more rigorously observed and the engineering allowing a little more air into the recording this would have been ideal.

But those are small and passing gripes compared to the overall pleasure in both the discovery of these works and the performances.  Apparently there are a further two quartets which date for the later years of the composer’s life (1923 and 1948).  Given the interest of the two works here I would hope that this quartet will explore them as well as the aforementioned sextets.  For any collector already attracted to the melodious and Romantic world of Russian string quartets from Arensky to Glazunov, Borodin to Rimsky-Korsakov, these are a welcome and heart-warming addition to the catalogue.

Nick Barnard

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Wladislaw Winokurow and Dominika Falger (violins), Martin Edelmann (viola), Endre F. Stankowsky (cello)