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In his fifty-three years on this earth (1840-1893), Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky became the most popular of all Russian composers. The public has always loved his music: full of melodious, honest themes, rich harmonies, and full of orchestral colours, all of which stir the listener’s emotions. It is no wonder that the Rolston String Quartet chose his music for their debut album. But Souvenirs is more than just another anthology of his chamber music. By including two of their mentors, Miguel da Silva and Gary Hoffman, in the album it is also a memoir of their seven years of developing into the world-class ensemble they have become.
The Rolston Quartet includes original quartet members Luri Lee (violin 1), Hezekiah Leung (viola) and Jonathan Lo (Cello) who met at the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School in 2013. Emily Kruspe (violin 2), also a graduate of GGS, joined the group in 2018 during a frenetic schedule of concerts in both Europe and across North America.
Rolston String Quartet: Hezekiah Leung, Emily Kruspe, Luri Lee, Jonathan Lo; Photo credit: Bo Huang Photography
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON May 18th 2020
Rolston String Quartet shows its world-class artistry in its debut album: Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky: Souvenirs
The album begins with the simply wonderful String Quartet No. 1 in D major, op. 11. Written in the earliest creative period of Tchaikovsky’s life, it was the product of a desire to supplement his modest teaching income with a concert of his own music. The concert included piano solos, a group of songs and his new string quartet. Even then, critics were quick to point out that “The String Quartet was distinguished by the same delightfully succulent melodies, beautifully and interestingly harmonized, the same mobility of tone - so foreign to the commonplace - the same . . . softness, to which we have become accustomed in this gifted composer."
The Rolston Quartet plays with clarity and full-bore emotion. The well-known second movement “Andante Cantabile” gave me goose bumps in the heart-wrenching folk melodies scored as solos for both violin and cello. The finale finds more Russian folk flavour in its themes and the “allegro Vivace” lifts the listener to the clouds as it rips through at blinding speed.
Also included in the album are arrangements of selections from Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, Op. 39, a collection of piano solos. The five short miniatures take one on a child’s fantasy beginning with “Morning Prayer”, a lament for a “Sick Doll”, the "Doll’s Funeral”, the excitement of a “New Doll” and finally a rousing folk dance, “Kamarinskaja”.
Violist Miguel da Silva and cellist Gary Hoffman join the quartet for the String Sextet in D minor ‘Souvenir de Florence’ Op 70. The quartet worked with da Silva in Banff during their triumphant summer of 2016 when they won the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition. It was through him that they became Associated Artists in Residence of the Queen Elizabeth Music Chapel in Belgium during the 2018-19 season.
The Sextet is grandiose for chamber music, indeed symphonic in scope. The first movement contains both Russian and Italian influences in the main themes. I particularly enjoyed the complex counterpoint of the development section and the passion in the bravura coda. The second movement might be familiar to Star Trek fans, as it found its way into the soundtrack in the Second-Generation television series. Luri Lee finds all the beauty in the bel canto melody in her rapturous violin solo which turns into a magical duet with Jonathan Lo. The violas have a turn at a Slavic folk tune in the scherzo and the finale builds to a thrilling virtuosic ending by way of more folk material and more stunning counterpoint. What a thrilling interpretation of a stunning piece of music! Although the work may have been conceived in Italy, it is Tchaikovsky at his Russian best.
The Rolston Quartet has come a long way in seven years. Named after the late Thomas Rolston, founder of the Chamber Music Program at the Banff Centre,they have spent years in full-time residency at first Rice University and then at Yale University as well as summer residencies at major music festivals. For the past three years, they have been on a whirlwind of performances across Europe and North America. They are as Bernard de Launoit of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel called them, “one of the best ensembles of the younger generation”. The recording is the result of the support they have received from the Banff Centre for the Arts and the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel.
It is a fragile time for artists, and the independent artists without a large organization like a symphony orchestra to lean on, are perhaps the most vulnerable. Listening to their recent album, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Souvenirs, it becomes clear that this ensemble has become a world-class quartet with a reflective depth of artistry. They deserve to have careers to match.
The recording is available on all digital streaming services. A hard copy (with outstanding program notes) is available at Amazon and Outhere Music. For a preview of the album, go to https://www.rolstonstringquartet.com/discography.
Rolston String Quartet Album Cover; Photo credit: Alexander Popelier