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November 2, 1999

Modern ComposersNadarejshvili -- String Quartet No. 1; Prokofiev -- String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. The St. Petersburg String Quartet. (Delos, CD #DE 3247) 1999.

The Bad Old Evil Empire of the Soviet Union didn't have much respect for the plastic arts, but they were deadly serious about music -- about protecting their citizens from the corrupting influence of decadent western music, and also about promoting proper Soviet music, preferably nice safe music by long-dead Russian composers. One of the choicest fruits of the Soviet/Russian musical establishment is the St. Petersburg String Quartet. Formed in 1985 with what may have been considered a glib Russian name of "String Quartet of the Leningrad Conservatory Named After N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov," the group quickly started winning every competition, prize, and award in sight. In 1989 the group was given permission [!] to change its name to the less informative but catchier "Leningrad String Quartet," and in 1991 when the city changed its name, so did the quartet. The group is now Quartet in Residence at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and maintains a busy concert and recording schedule, specializing largely in works by Russian and CIS composers.

Zurab Nadarejshvili (pronounced just like it's spelled, but in Georgian) was born in 1957 in Georgia, and studied composition at the Tbilisi State Conservatory, where he is now on the faculty. He specializes in chamber works, such as the String Quartet No. 1 featured on this new recording from Delos. Also on the recording are the only two string quartets by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), No. 1 composed in 1930, and No 2 from 1941.

Nadarejshvili's Quartet No. 1 is steeped in the musical traditions of his native Georgia, a nation "famous for its ancient musical culture of spirited dances and marvelous, distinctive polyphonic choral music." Written in 1985, the work "is a musical reflection of the emotional experience of the Georgian people during the period of Stalinism and World War II." The first of the work's three movements is built around themes taken from ancient Georgian chants, laid over a structure of long drone tones. The quick and lively second movement again employs more-or-less traditional Georgian melodies, taken from folk dances, and the final movement returns to the dolorous tone of the opening. Marked ad libitum, the third section, according to the liner notes, "is a mourning for the dead, given vivid color by an authentic Pshavian lament." [I'm not sure what it means, either.] The piece is marked by sharp contrasts in tone and mood, from the near lugubrious opening sections through the manic agitation of the middle and back.

The two Prokofiev quartets also present quite a contrast in styles. The first, which was commissioned by the U.S. Library of Congress, was written when the composer was in the United States, and was strongly influenced by Beethoven's quartets, but with Prokofiev's characteristic polyphony. The second was written eleven years later, while Prokofiev was staying in the southern Russian provinces to escape the dangers and privations of war-time Moscow. In contrast to the earlier quartet's reliance on classical themes, the later work incorporated local folk music of the Soviet Caucasus, reproducing some of its characteristic intervals, phrasing, and rhythms.

You can hear the String Quartet No. 1 by Zurab Nadarejshvili on WHIL-FM (91.3) on Thursday, November 4 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

--J. Green

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