String Quartet No.4 in F Major, Op.124
Gretchaninovís String Quartet No.4 in F Major is the only one composed when he was no longer living in Russia. The first three string quartets were written while he was living in Tsarist Russia. The First Quartet is redolent of the influence of Rimsky Korsakov and to a lesser extent Tchaikovsky. But the second and third quartets show that he began to be influenced by French impressionism. The Fourth Quartet dates from 1929, by which time he had already resided in Paris for four years. Yet, surprisingly there is no sign of French impressionism. Rather, we hear the music of his native Russia and of his earlier exemplars with tinges of the Viennese classics. The opening movement, Allegro moderato, begins with an inversion of the famous main theme to Beethovenís Fifth Symphony. The second and more lyrical subject also comes from the same movement of Beethovenís symphony and its rhythmic character pervades the entire movement as it does in Beethovenís. The second movement, Maestoso assai, is closely related to the themes of the preceding Allegro. Its emotional temperature slowly rises to a dramatic climax by virtue of its persistent and repeated rhythms, before dissolving into a softer and poetic denouement. The Allegro vivo serves as a nervous scherzo, however, a counter melody belted out by the cello is a belligerent Russian folk tune. The constant alternation between pizzicato and bowed passages creates an original sounding and strong impression, while the trio section conjures up the images of folk fiddlers. The finale, Lento ma non troppo, Vivo, begins with a slow introduction that has a five note theme which is repeated at ever increasing speed until it morphs seamlessly into the main section Vivo. It is only here that it seems Gretchaninov has assimulated more modern developments. The music is upbeat and sunny, but heavily accented rhythmic passages become irregular and momentary dissonances, a la Bartok, make brief appearances giving affairs a more modern flavor..
Moscow born Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956) started his musical studies rather late because his father, a businessman, had expected the boy to take over the family firm. Gretchaninov himself related that he did not see a piano until he was 14 and began his studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1881 against his parents' wishes and without their knowledge. His main teachers there were Arensky and Sergei Taneyev. In the late 1880s, after a quarrel with Arensky, he moved to St. Petersburg where he studied composition and orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov until 1893. Korsakov immediately recognized Gretchaninov's extraordinary musical imagination and talent, giving him much extra time as well as considerable financial help, which allowed the young man, whose parents were not supporting him, to survive. Out of this came an important friendship, which only ended in 1908 with Rimsky's death. Around 1896, Gretchaninov returned to Moscow and was involved with writing for the theater, the opera, and the Russian Orthodox Church. His works, especially those for voice, achieved considerable success within Russia, while his instrumental works enjoyed even wider acclaim. By 1910, he was considered a composer of such distinction that the Tsar had awarded him an annual pension. Though he remained in Russia for several years after the Revolution, ultimately, he chose to emigrate, first to France in 1925 and then to the U.S. in 1939 where he remained for the rest of his life.
This is an interesting and worthwhile quartet deserving concert performance but is also well within the reach of competent amateurs who will certainly enjoy it.