The quartet formed in 1985. First violinist Alla Aranovskaya and cellist Leonid Shukayev are founding members. In 2005, violist Boris Vayner joined the group. The newest member, joining in 2010, is second violinist Evgeny Zvonnikov in 2010. The Grammy-nominated group has an international list of competitions that they won, as well as equally long list of prestigious venues that have invited them to play. They are currently the quartet-in-residence at Wichita State University in Kansas.
They opened with a wonderful reading of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 1 (in A). The St. Petersburg has recorded the composer’s two string quartets in 2001, when all four original members were playing. They had a more recent (2008) recording for sale at the concert. It would be worth the time to listen to both recordings to compare and contrast. Just the passage of time would affect the interpretation. With one new player, the overall sound should also be quite different. Now, with an other new players, they should give some thought to a third recording.
No matter how the recordings sound (I have the most recent one), nothing could compare to the entrancing reading they delivered in the San Fernando Cathedral. Of course, live music always trumps a recording because of the ambiance created by watching the artists create the music right in front of you. There is also some magic that the audience brings, that is missing in a recording studio.
The quartet was joined by soprano Uliana Alexyuk who made quite an impression as a last minute replacement Gilda in Houston Opera’s production of Rigoletto in January. She negotiated the role’s difficulties with ease and her more lyric voice smoothed out the piping that pepper the performances of many lighter-voiced coloraturas. My review is here.
She was every bit as impressive in her selections with the St. Petersburg, in graceful adaptations by Aleksey Aronov. From Glinka’s groundbreaking opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, she sang Ludmila's aria “Ah ty, dolya-dolushka.” Next came three songs by Rachmaninoff: “Margaritki,” “Daisies” and the best known of the bunch, “Ne poi, krasavitsa, pri mne.” She closed with Alyabiev’s “The Nightingale.”
In all of these selections, she spun out a silken vocal thread that ran through every note and connected all of the phrases internally as well as with each other. The Russian diction, which is not as favorable to such legato singing (as say, Italian), did not give her the slightest pause. Admittedly, this is her language, but that alone cannot explain the legato core at the center of her voice. No, that is pure technical mastery combined with a stunning natural gift. It is like a moving stream into which she launches note after note and phrase after phase. This is not to imply that she lacks power or the ability to dramatically drive the voice when that is required. But even here, it is the connecting line that separates her from other singers.
There are very few works for a string quartet and a singer. Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach (for baritone) and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ On Wenlock Edge (for tenor with piano added) immediately comes to mind, followed by a blank space. This performance made an excellent case for more such repertoire.