WEINBERG: String Quartets Nos. 2, 5 & 8 / Arcadia Quartet / Chandos 20158
Between 2006 and 2009, the French-based Quatuor Danel recorded all 17 of Mieczysław Weinberg’s quirky, often melancholy string quartets for CPO in sterling performances that won awards and were all highly praised by critics (including me). Now the Arcadia Quartet, formed in Romania but now headquartered in Great Britain, is embarking on a series of their own, of which this disc is Vol. 1.
Comparing the two groups in these same quartets shows some differences in both sound and interpretation. Quatuor Danel is typically French-sounding, with bright, pointed yet lean string sonorities. Their playing is crisp and forward-moving even in the slow movements without, I rush to add, sacrificing any emotional commitment to the music.
By contrast, the Arcadia Quartet has a decidedly warmer sound which is heightened by the equally warm acoustic of these recordings. They also milk the quartets more for emotion by using slightly slower tempi in every movement of each quartet, though not enough to dampen the work’s structure. Perhaps the best example of their differences comes in the slow first movement of Quartet No. 5. Quatuor Danel plays it at a slightly quicker tempo (5:55 compared to Arcadia’s 6:15) but does not gloss over the melancholy quality of the music—in fact, if anything, in this movement they seem to dig a little bit deeper than their Romanian-British counterparts—yet the Arcadia Quartet’s performance sounds like the same tempo because they use a bit more vibrato and thus are able to sustain the long notes with a more beautiful sound.
But then move ahead to the second-movement “Humoreska” and you’ll hear a big difference. The Arcadia Quartet plays it considerably slower than Danel (6:04 compared to 5:37), and at that tempo the humorous quality of this Humoresque dissolves into softer contours and less rhythmic accents. They sound as if they’re laboring slightly, making a lumpy, slow polka out of this quick, funny little movement.
I realize that this is simply one movement in three quartets, but it sums up my feeling about the whole set and, by inference, to any succeeding releases to come, not to mention the big question, “Why did Chandos bother?” The complete series of Weinberg quartets runs six CDs; Weinberg, even in England where Gidon Kremer did his best to generate interest in the composer during his centenary year (2019) and Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla has conducted and recorded Weinberg, simply does not sell to a mass market. His music is just too quirky, non-“tuneful” and often melancholy for the average listener to relate to (except for some of the pre-war works, like the first two quartets, and his comic opera Wir Gratulieren!). But I know the British. They just LOVE soft, warm, gooshy performances of classical music, thus I expect that both Gramophone and BBC Music will gush over these recordings. As for me, I’ll stick with Quatuor Danel, but at least now you know what these new recordings sound like. They’re certainly not bad by any means, but they miss much of Weinberg’s quirky, sometimes black humor.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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