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Anton ZIMMERMANN (?1741-1781)
String Quartets, Op. 3 – No. 1 in E flat [24’09]; No. 2 in B [22’30]; No. 3 in F [21’05].
Musica Aeterna Soloists (Peter Zajíček, Milos Valent, violins; Ján Gréner, viola; Peter Királ, cello).

Rec. Gothic Church of Liptovská Osada on May 28th-30th, 1994. DDD
NAXOS 8.553952 [67’44]

The information given by Naxos tells us that this disc was first issued in 1994, courtesy of ‘Ducale’. Musica Aeterna Bratislava have given us three discs on Naxos previously: String Symphonies by Johannes Matthias Sperger (8.554764) and two discs of Muffat Concerti grossi (8.555096 and 8.555743). Here the string soloists of this group present three string quartets by Anton Zimmermann, a composer active in Bratislava (the then capital of Hungary) by the year 1772. The court orchestra was ‘his’, and he composed many orchestral works, including symphonies that have been wrongly attributed to Haydn. Zimmermann was employed there by the Cardinal and Hungarian Primate Count Josef Batthyányi (1727-99), where he was conductor, violinist and court composer. The string quartets represent a generally intimate side of his nature, if these offerings are anything to go by. At once courtly and civilised yet expressive in their own way, there is much here to delight the ear, especially in such vital performances as these.

Zimmermann published a fair amount of chamber music (including Six Sonatas, Op. 2 and Six Quartets, Op. 3). It is difficult to date the Op. 3 Quartets accurately.

Using A=430 Hz, these original instrument performances from the Musica Aeterna Soloists seem to bring with them a sense of fresh discovery. The sound initially may take a small amount of acclimatisation (perhaps seeming on the scratchy side), but once the ear adjusts there is plenty to admire. Take the fist quartet on offer, Op. 3 No. 1. There is a gentilité to the phrasing, and the intrinsic politeness of the score is fully realised by the Musica Aeterna Soloists. The slow movement is remarkably approachable.

All of these quartets are in five movements (two minuets in each case, always nicely contrasting). The Haydn similarity can be plainly heard in the busy and lively finale of Op. 3 No. 1.

The second quartet of Op. 3 is in the relatively infrequently used key of B major. Beginning with a grand arpeggiation, it has to be admitted that it does not sound the requested Allegretto to begin with (is this the composer’s joke, embedded in his notation?). What shines through this performance is the way in which Musica Aeterna can shade phrases and grade diminuendi artfully. That Zimmermann has imagination aplenty can be heard in the third movement (Adagio), with its bare, arresting pizzicato opening, which moves aside to become the accompaniment for the violin’s eloquent solo line (most suavely delivered here by Peter Zajíček).

Interesting that the third quartet should begin with a set of variations, although here the level of inspiration could usefully be compared with that of a superior undergraduate effort in pastiche. The final two movements provide the high points of this quartet, the almost cock-sure first violin of the second Menuetto leading to the ‘Allegro non molto’ finale. By adhering to the ‘non molto’ request, the Musica Aeterna Soloists are able to give remarkable life to the inner voices.

A very enjoyable disc. The music will not stretch the intellect too far, neither will it move the emotions to extremes. Rather, this is eminently well-crafted music, expertly performed (tuning and ensemble are excellent) and equally expertly recorded.

Colin Clarke


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