Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882 - 1973)
Complete String Quartets
Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia
Recorded: Dynamic Studios, Genova, May and September 1996
DYNAMIC CDS 168/1-2
Gian Francesco Malipiero led a long, busy and prolific life. His vast output
includes numerous works in every genre but the most significant part of it
is to be found in his operas, his symphonies and his eight string quartets.
Indeed, his symphonies (there are eleven "numbered" symphonies and six
"unnumbered" ones including the withdrawn and probably destroyed Sinfonia
degli eroi of 1905) and his string quartets span his entire composing
life and therefore provide for an illuminating survey of Malipiero's musical
progress. In this respect, the string quartets may still be more telling
than the symphonies: First, there are fewer of them and, second, the quartets
seem to follow a straighter line, stylistically speaking, than the symphonies.
Malipiero's approach to the string quartet genre is highly idiosyncratic
(because he generally avoided the classical models of Haydn or Beethoven)
and logical (in that he wanted to renew Italian music by freeing it from
the Verist fashion and by concentrating on more abstract forms). This liberating
attitude is clearly evident in the first three string quartets which all
refer - directly or indirectly - to older popular Italian musical forms as
implied by their subtitles, although Malipiero's subtitles are sometimes
highly misleading (this is particularly true with the subtitles of the
The first string quartet Rispetti e Strambotti was completed
in 1920. Malipiero eschews any reference to classical models by structuring
the work as a sequence of short sections interspersed by the opening phrase
working as a ritornello although the piece falls into three larger
sections, the central one of a more improvisatory character being separated
of the outer ones by long pauses. The first string quartet is probably the
best known of the whole cycle because it was recorded many years ago by the
Stuyvesant Quartet (on TURNABOUT, I think) and also because it exists in
a version for string orchestra which has been recorded some years ago by
I Solisti Italiani (DENON CO-77150).
The second string quartet Stornelli e Ballate of 1923 is likewise
structured as a panel sequence of short sections. It clearly sets forth along
the same lines as the first string quartet and so does the third string
quartet Cantari alla Madrigalesca of 1931 (which also exists in
a version for string orchestra). Both quartets may be said to refer to older
musical forms although the subtitle of the third string quartet may simply
allude to the singing quality of the music throughout the piece.
The fourth string quartet, completed in 1934, does not bear any subtitle
and shows a clear advance on the earlier quartets as far as structure is
concerned: here Malipiero relies more on counterpoint than ever before and
writes in longer paragraphs although he deliberately eschews any attempt
at traditional development in all his string quartets and even in his symphonies.
The fifth string quartet Dei Capricci was completed and published
in 1950, i.e. after the sixth string quartet, but it reworks some material
from Malipiero's 1940 opera I Capricci di Callot, which is why it
was eventually included as the fifth quartet. (Incidentally, Paolo Cattelan
who wrote the insert notes states that the quartet was written in 1941 BUT
published in 1950.) In it Malipiero seems to revert to the style of his earlier
quartets and is rather a sequence of 'capricious' moods.
The sixth string quartet L'Arca di Noe completed in 1947 is
yet another example of Malipiero's unconventional approach. The subtitle
('Noah's Ark') has given way to several, sometimes diverging interpretations.
Some think that it refers to the fact that Malipiero's home was a refuge
for numerous animals and that he was said to be used to composing with an
owl perched on his shoulder! Others think that it refers to Malipiero's attempt
at gathering sometimes disparate elements into one single entity. Needless
to say that I think the latter is the most likely.
Again the seventh string quartet written in 1950 has no subtitle.
It also relies more heavily on counterpoint although classical models are
kept at bay.
Malipiero's last string quartet Per Elisabetta, completed in
1964, is once more dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, hence the subtitle
which for once has a real meaning. It is his shortest string quartet and
also a work in which Malipiero again moved into new expressive territories.
The music of the eighth string quartet sometimes verges on atonality, and
it is one of his most complex scores. (By the time he was 82!)
Malipiero's string quartets undoubtedly rank among his most impressive
achievements and certainly equals Bartók's or Shostakovich's in
encompassing a huge range of emotions reflecting the composer's concerns
at the time of composition. Malipiero's ever-questing mind is at work throughout
the whole series, which is why his string quartets are sometimes at odds
with each other while clearly sharing the same origins and aims. Again, they
are among his more significant works and, unquestionably, among the most
important Italian works of the mid-20th Century.
The Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia have obviously devoted much care and affection
in preparing their performances of Malipiero's string quartets. Their readings
are beautifully shaped, with an evident regard for the music and are given
a warm recording.
The only competitor so far is the Orpheus String Quartet who recorded the
whole series for ASV (ASV DCD 457 published in 1991). This set is also very
fine and there is very little indeed to choose between both, the DYNAMIC
recording may only be given a marginally warmer sound. Both sets are recommended
and these newcomers are certainly second to none in this absorbing, though
very rewarding cycle.
Recommended with any reservations.