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Juan Crisóstomo de ARRIAGA (1806-1826)
String Quartets: No. 1 in D minor (c.1824); No. 2 in A major (c.1824); No. 3 in E flat major (c.1824)
Camerata Boccherini: Massimo Spadano, violin; Mauro Rossi, violin; David Quiggle, viola; Luigi Piovano, cello
rec. 7-10 June 2003, Santa Cruz Auditorium, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, DDD
NAXOS  8.557628 [69:05]


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The influential Naxos label seem to be recording all the music ever composed and have released numerous different series of works for their extensive catalogue. As part of their ‘Spanish Classics series’ Naxos turn to the music of Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga the precociously talented Basque composer and excellent violinist who became known as ‘The Spanish Mozart‘. Sadly owing to his untimely death at the age of nineteen one can only speculate on the position that Arriaga would have achieved in music’s history.    

Interest in the music of Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga began to revive in the late nineteenth century. Since then, his works have earned the admiration of the music world, confirming the fact that his premature death meant the loss not only of an individually brilliant composer, but also perhaps of a significant link in the development of musical history itself. 

Arriaga was born in Bilbao in 1806 and soon became renowned in the city’s musical circles. In 1821 Arriaga moved to Paris where he studied the violin with Pierre Baillot and composition with François-Joseph Fétis who he also acted as his teaching assistant. The great majority of his extant works date from his time in Paris: the three String Quartets, a number of stage works such as Agar and Erminia, the Symphony and the Three Studies or Caprices for piano. It is said that Arriaga’s excessive workload was the most probable cause of the pulmonary infection that led to his death in 1826.

Arriaga’s three String Quartets were published in Paris as the Premier Livre de quatuors in 1824 and, given the composer’s early death, can be seen as works of relative maturity. These are beautiful and most accomplished chamber works, high in musical value, rich in melody and with enormous technical precision in the contrapuntal writing of the different parts. Arriaga’s genius for invention comes through in their innovative movement layout and structure, which differs somewhat from traditional models.

His teacher Fétis was highly impressed with the three String Quartets and wrote, “It is impossible to find anything more original, nor purer, nor more correctly written”. This is a very interesting commentary since the musical form of the string quartet had only been extensively and deeply explored by Haydn and Mozart, and it is even more remarkable to notice that Beethoven was a contemporary of Arriaga (he died a year later but at older age) but did not achieved so great mastery in composition at the same age. Since Arriaga had began the three String Quartets in Vizcaya it is perfectly reasonable to assume that he had had no contact there with the works of Beethoven or Schubert which is a testament to his natural talent. The three String Quartets were printed by publishers Casa Petit in 1824.

For this release Naxos release have chosen the four musicians of Camerata Boccherini, led by Italian born Massimo Spadano. The talented ensemble are period instrument specialists and perform their Baroque and Classical music using authentic Italian instruments or copies of the period.

In the String Quartet No. 1 in D minor we sense reminiscences of bolero mediante, a popular and perhaps Basque theme, which made Arriaga a precursor of musical Nationalism; they seem to have a Beethovian air about them and include accents of a Romantic character, similar to those which Schubert brought to his years later. The young Arriaga composed with geniality and personality, as if he knew the works of Haydn and Mozart well and he hardly ever had the opportunity to hear any Beethoven and even less to Schubert, whose work was rarely performed in the Parisian concerts of that period.

The String Quartet No. 1 in D minor comprises four movements. The first, an allegro, develops a mournful theme to which a second, folk-inspired idea then responds. The adagio is based on a long drawn-out phrase for first violin, that is perfectly performed by Massimo Spadano. In place of a scherzo, the fascinating and inventive third movement is a menuet, whose trio features pizzicato chords with a guitar-like accompaniment. An adagio phrase which unexpectedly recurs before the conclusion acts as an introduction to the dignified allegretto finale. Refined and controlled performances from Camerata Boccherini that are high of vitality and enthusiasm.

The String Quartet No. 2 in A major is formally the most traditional of the three. In the  allegro the four instruments converse together, the four parts being remarkably independent but well balanced. The andante con variaciones takes the place of a slow movement, the last variation created by a pizzicato effect. The menuetto is followed by a cadenza-like passage which is repeated in the final allegro, after the exposition. This is playing of considerable merit by Camerata Boccherini. I would have preferred more vitality in the opening movement allegro, however, the playing in the andante displays a deep concentration with episodes of dramatic contrast.  

The String Quartet No. 3 in E flat major is the most technically developed of the three scores. The opening unison in the allegro is followed by a concertante interchange of motifs between instruments, the development being marked by its expressive nature and shifts in tonality. The second movement is a pastorale rather than an adagio, whose different episodes feature various descriptive effects, for example the tremolo to suggest a storm. Arriaga then lifts his thematic writing to a high point in the final presto agitato. The players of Camerata Boccherini bring plenty of drama and intensity to the E flat major score. There is ample expressive power in the interpretation with a powerful musical intelligence. 

There are a surprising number of accounts of the three String Quartets that have been recorded. The alternative versions of the three String Quartets that are most likely to be encountered in the catalogues are the accounts from the Voces Quartet on Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG60302362; Cuarteto Casals on Hyperion HMI987038 and the Arriaga Quartet on ASV CDDCA1012.

The Naxos sound engineers have travelled to Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands for these recordings and have provided a natural and well balanced sound quality. The concise booklet notes from Santiago Gorostiza, from which I have extensively used in this review, are easily readable and highly informative.   

These chamber scores certainly demonstrate Arriaga’s genius for winning melody, emotional pathos and innovative structure. The superb picture on the front cover of the booklet of the oil painting The Parasol from 1777 by Goya greatly adds to the evocative atmosphere of the recording.

This is a wonderfully presented, recorded and performed release which is a must for chamber music lovers.

Michael Cookson

Göran Forsling has also listened to this disc:

Arriaga was born in Bilbao, Spain in 1806. His earliest known compositions are from 1817. Two years later he completed the two-act opera Los esclavos felices (The Happy Slaves) which was performed to great acclaim in 1820. The overture has been recorded several times and is the only Arriaga work that I have actually heard live. The symphony is central to his output as are the three string quartets, which were my introduction to this composer back in the mid-seventies, or rather the first two of them (Concert Hall LP - Quatuor de Genève). That record rotated quite frequently on my turntable for many years and it was only a few months ago that I reacquainted myself as part of my project of transferring old LP favourites to CD. I also did some random sampling while reviewing the present disc and was impressed by the still vivid sound and the stylish playing of the Swiss ensemble. I was just as impressed by the Camerata Boccherini, four experienced musicians who have made it their speciality to play Baroque and Classical music on authentic instruments.

Arriaga, who died before he had even turned twenty, has been called “The Spanish Mozart” but he is actually closer to Schubert in style. Rather he was developing in a Schubertian direction, which can be followed through these three quartets. The first is the most Mozartean, like the other two cast in four movements with a minuet as the third. It is a splendid work and if it had been presented as a composition by the Salzburg master it would probably have been on the music stands of every self-respecting string quartet. The opening allegro at once catches the listener with its elegance and vitality. The Camerata Boccherini dig into it, seething with energy but also phrasing with great subtlety. By comparison the Geneva players are more reserved, more classically correct. The wonderful second movement Adagio con espressione is lovingly played here, with a real glow in the impassioned eruptions and always showing great care with the dynamics. This goes for the whole disc. These are indeed highly accomplished and spirited performances, and if one now and again feels that the Geneva quartet might be just as good in their more restrained way they are not quite as exciting. Listening alternately to the two groups I have reached the conclusion that I can’t find a clear winner, but if this were boxing, Camerata Boccherini would probably get some extra points for more activity. I am not prepared to throw away the Geneva disc but I will probably play the new disc more often. And of course it includes Quartet No. 3, which has some claims to be the greatest of the three, or at least the boldest. The second movement, Pastorale – Andantino, stands out as a direct indicator of a budding romanticism with its dramatic, minatory tremolo strings. It might be a storm, as Santiago Gorostiza suggests in the liner notes, but keeping in mind Arriaga’s early excellence as a music dramatist, it could be something even more threatening. This is indeed music that anticipates the romantic opera - Verdi’s Macbeth isn’t far away. In the Presto agitato finale he also seems on his way towards new challenges. Whether he would have become a pioneer of the Romantic era had he lived longer is impossible to know but he obviously had ambitions and the three works performed here were actually published as Premier Livre de quatuors (First Book of Quartets).

These are, as I hope I have already indicated, among the freshest and most attractive string quartets of the period – or indeed the whole quartet repertoire. I strongly recommend them. There are other versions that I haven’t heard, but longstanding acquaintance with the Quatuor de Genève recording – which of course is no longer available – has convinced me that it is hard to imagine them better played than by Camerata Boccherini. And at Naxos’s give-away price everyone can afford them.

Göran Forsling

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf






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