Quintessentially Russian: Philippe Quint’s new Tchaikovsky/Arensky recording

This September, Avanticlassic released yet another account of Tchaikovsky’s much performed Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35, revealing the stylistic versatility and technical brilliance of Russian/American violinist Philippe Quint. In this recording, Quint, whose “lyricism, energy and devotion,” was lauded by the LA Times, pairs Tchaikovsky’s “war-horse” of the violin-repertoire, with Anton Stephanovich Arensky’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor, coincidentally his Op.35 as well. This line up makes for Quint’s first all-Russian recording, and there is something of a full circle coming about within this youthful thirty-something violinist’s successful career, which has led him from his native Leningrad to Moscow’s Central Music School for Gifted Children, and then to an illustrious mentorship at Juilliard when he was just 17.

Quint’s earlier discography, which includes Grammy-nominated recordings of Bernstein’s Serenade and violin concertos by American composers William Schuman, a former Juilliard president and Erich Korngold, as well as Ned Rorem, speaks to his affinity for his new American domicile and his assimilation within his immediate surroundings. Two contemporary composers who Quint champions – John Corigliano and Lera Auerbach – are Juilliard alumni, like Quint.

(Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

In 2005, Quint recorded for David Grubin’s film, Marie Antoinette, which led to Quint’s performance of the lead role in Grubin’s 2011 film, Downtown Express.  Quint plays himself, a violinist at Juilliard, adding his dramatic talent – coached by Sondra Lee – to his musical virtuosity, featured on the film’s soundtrack.

Everything in Quint’s performance style speaks of his highly personal relationship with the music he performs, revealing his passionate drive to “own” and live it. The late Andrej Korsakov, Quint’s teacher and one of the great pedagogues of the Soviet Union at the time, features prominently in Quint’s recollection of his first rendezvous with Tchaikovsky’s famous concerto: “Korsakov assigned the concerto to me as the next ‘big’ step. I must have learned the concerto over a few days and brought it for my …disastrous…lesson with him, the following week. Korsakov was furious with me that I was taking so many liberties with tempi and interpretation…” Quint says, noting that he had barely looked at the score, but mostly “performed” the notable concerto, which could be heard on TV, radio, and concert stages all around at the time, by ear, longing eagerly to perform the all-time favorite work with orchestra. Recognizing his young student’s euphoria, Korsakov allowed Quint to continue working on the concerto under the condition that he would start from scratch, adding proper methodical craftsmanship to his enthusiasm. (Photo credit: Jeff Gerev)

Quint’s persistence panned out. At this point, he has performed the concerto over 200 times, re-evaluating the work’s possibilities without losing his fascination for its ingenious writing and historic context. In the recording’s liner note, Quint describes Tchaikovsky’s “fire of inspiration,” when composing the concerto. In personal correspondence about writing the concerto, a process that took less than a month’s time, Tchaikovsky described his progress, saying: “Everything I have written today will have the power to enter the heart and make lasting impressions on it.”

Tchaikovsky was personally inspired by violinist Iosif Kotek, a student of Hrimaly and Joachim, whom he met at the peaceful lakeside villa retreat in Clarens, Switzerland after fleeing Russia. “I could never have done anything without his support,” he wrote, but he worried about causing gossip about his relationship with the virtuoso and eventually dedicated the concerto to the eminent performer Leopold Auer, professor at the St. Petersburg conservatory. Auer’s famously critical stance towards the concerto and its outright “bashing” from critics such as Eduard Hanslick, who depicted its dramatic finale as “leaving a stink in the ear,” led to numerous edits, including revisions of its solo part and cuts in its finale. According to Auer, these changes were made with the consent of Tchaikovsky, who is rather known for accepting alternative suggestions concerning his work.

Jascha Heifetz, one of Auer’s famed students, favored the edited version, although the original version was favored by some protagonists, including Bronislaw Huberman.

Quint offers both versions here with great gusto, acknowledging the choice and difference of opinion, and letting the listener make up his own mind as to which version is preferable. Quint is supported by the Sofia Philharmonic under Martin Panteleev, making for an enthusiastic musical rapport, despite the less than ideal acoustics at Bulgaria Hall.

Pairing the concerto with Arensky’s quartet puts further attention on the background, which ties these composers and their works together historically.

Arensky shared his great admiration for Tchaikovsky’s work with his students, including Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere.

Intended as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, Arensky’s quartet, Op.35, includes themes of the master’s Chansons Enfantines, Op. 54 in the variations of the quartet’s second movement, adding Russian patriotic themes, like the hymn Slava Bogu no nebe slava, which draws from an ancient funeral mass and was also used in the ceremonial tradition of the crowning of the Tsar, turning Tchaikovsky, as Quint observes, into “the Tsar of composers.”

Supportive of his fellow musicians, Tchaikovsky had personally vouched for Arensky’s “forgotten” work to be performed –even instead of his own, at least in one instance, as an 1887 letter to Rimsky-Korsakov reveals, asking Rimsky-Korsakov to program Arensky’s work instead of his already famed Romeo and Juliet Overture.

In place of the usual habit of quartet literature, Arensky’s second violin is replaced by a second cello, giving a soaringly mournful quality to the music’s already melancholic character. On this track, Quint collaborated with Lily Francis, Nicolas Altstadt, and Claudio Bohŏrquez, recorded at the concert hall of the Siemens-Villa in Berlin.

All in all a great historically inspired addition to one’s library, from a versatile and charismatic artist, we will certainly hear much more from in the near future.

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