Today Noontime Concerts™ ("San Francisco's Music Lunch Break") at Old St. Mary's Cathedral concluded their October Russian Music Festival with a recital consisting of a single composition. This was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 70 string sextet in D minor, best known by its subtitle “Souvenir de Florence” (memory of Florence). The sextet was formed by the members of the Temescal String Quartet (violinists Barbara Riccardi and Katherine Button, violist Jonna Hervig, and cellist Ruth Lane) with the remaining parts taken by Paul Ehrlich (viola) and Victoria Ehrlich (cello).
As Victoria Ehrlich explained in her opening remarks, this music was composed in the summer of 1890 when Tchaikovsky was staying at Nadezhda von Meck’s Italian villa. However, the music originated with a request from the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society. As a result, there is little Italianate about the score; and, for the most part (and for those who like alliteration), the music is a perfect example of rampant Russian rhetoric. This is not meant as criticism, because Tchaikovsky tends to be at his most irresistible when he is at his most Russian.
The sonority of a string sextet differs significantly from that of a string quartet owing to the doubling of each of the three instrument types. The result is a much thicker texture, through which one can appreciate just how skillful Tchaikovsky was in designing contrapuntal structures that would allow each of these six voices an equal say in the matter. I am particularly fascinated with how the instruments alternate between melodic and accompanying passages in the third movement, which is basically in the ternary form of a traditional nineteenth-century intermezzo, and in the way the theme of the first section returns while the churning rhythms of the middle section linger.
While the execution of this score was, for the most part both capable and convincing, I had some sense that Lane was still getting used to the fact that her first cello part was no longer carrying the bass line, which was Victoria Ehrlich’s responsibility. On the other hand, Lane got to perform that ravishing duet with Riccardi in the second movement, which might almost have its own title as “The White Swan Pas de Deux Revisited.” Tchaikovsky must have decided that the delicate interplay of violin and cello deserved better than “background music” for Swan Lake; and, in composing the second movement of Opus 70, he seized the opportunity to bring this kind of duo work into the foreground.
The result was a delightful account of Tchaikovsky at his most Russian (even if he did most of his composition in Italy) and the perfect way to end the October Russian Music Festival.