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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
is a wonderfully presented, recorded and performed release
which is a must for chamber music lovers.
Göran Forsling has also listened to this
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.
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