The Russian Chamber Music Foundation of Seattle should be commended for bringing the St. Petersburg String Quartet to town for the first time. This fine group, performing under the Foundation’s auspices Sunday afternoon at Nordstrom Recital Hall, gave a program of music by Borodin, Glazunov and Glinka, the last a sextet in which the players were joined by bassist Travis Gore, and pianist and founder of the foundation, Natalya Ageyeva.
Borodin’s String Quartet No. 1 in A Major is less well known that the later, shorter second quartet, but it has plenty to recommend it, being full of charm and zest. What strikes the listener immediately about the St. Petersburg — violinists Alla Aranovskaya and Evgeny Zvonnikov, violist Boris Vayner and cellist Leonid Shukayev — in its tone quality. It’s even across all four instruments, a warm mellow sound with depth, color and resonance, never sounding pushed. Balance and phrasing were impeccable, dynamics expressive, technique excellent at all times; light, crisp and clean in the very fast scherzo movement.
The same held for its playing of two of Glazunov’s Five Novelettes, the Waltz and the Hungarian Dance. The swirling tempo of the waltz left the feet itching to get up and move, and the Hungarian Dance carried the inimitable flavor of that country.
Glinka’s Grand Sextet for string quartet, bass and piano in E-Flat Major is another work we hear only rarely. The work is lively, and full of melody and lyricism. Glinka was a pianist and that fact becomes obvious, as this is really a work for piano with string accompaniment. The piano is always prominent and there are virtually no moments when it is silent. Its role is often florid with far more ornamentation and interest than the string parts, though these have a charm of their own. Unfortunately, in the first movement, Ageyeva’s playing did not match the caliber of the string players, and the many scintillating runs were often not even, clean or clear, though she had a lovely touch in later movements. The music could also have benefited from rather less use of the pedal.
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It would have helped the overall balance between instruments had the piano lid been somewhat lower than it was. It seems to be the rule in all chamber music played in Nordstrom that the piano lid be at full height, but this makes the sound of this big instrument sometimes overwhelming in that small hall.
The group gave one encore: “Suliko,” by Tsintsadze, quite brief, with the lower strings sounding like a balalaika and two of the players singing along in one verse.
It was a pleasure to hear the St. Petersburg Quartet, formed 29 years ago. It is to be hoped that it will be back soon.