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Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Quartet No. 1 in A minor for violin, viola, cello and guitar, Op. 4, No. 1 (c. 1813-15) [21:32]
Trio in D major for guitar, violin and cello (1833) [23:48]
Quartet No. 15 in A minor for viola, violin, cello and guitar (c. 1838) [20:42]
Offenburger String Trio: (Frank Schilli (violin); Rolf Schilli (viola); Martin Merker (cello)); Siegbert Remberger (guitar)
rec. 2001, Rügheim, Germany. DDD
AMBITUS AMB 96 899 [66:21]

I love to hear music from the lesser-known byways of Classical and Romantic chamber music. Aptly fitting the bill is this second volume in what appears to be a continuing series of Paganini’s chamber music. A quick check has revealed that the first volume, which I have yet to hear, contains the Trio Concertante in D major for viola, guitar and cello; Cantabile for violin and guitar and the Quartetto E major for violin, viola, cello and guitar (Ambitus AMB 97 977).
Niccolò Paganini holds an esteemed status as possibly the world’s finest ever virtuoso violinist but it is often forgotten that he also played and studied the guitar. Swiss composer Franz von Wartensee, an associate of Paganini, wrote in his memoirs, “Not everyone knows that Paganini was a first-rate guitarist, since he did not consider it worth the effort to present himself publicly as such.” The Genoa-born Paganini in addition to composing scores for the violin wrote a substantial amount for the guitar.
The sources of information that I have available are rather vague on the origins and dates of Paganini’s attraction to the guitar. I understand that the main influence was his father Antonio who was himself a mandolin player. It is likely that from an early age Paganini would have received instruction from him. Evidently from around 1801, during the few years that Paganini lived with a wealthy lady on her country estate in Tuscany, his energies were principally channelled into guitar study and composition.      

According to the Ambitus annotation this recording includes the first and the last of the fifteen quartets that Paganini wrote for violin, viola, cello and guitar.  
The first work, the Quartet in A minor, Op. 4, No. 1, was one of the few that Paganini had published and is one of the six Guitar Quartets that appeared as his Opp. 4 and 5. Thought to have been composed around 1813-15 the A minor Quartet is cast in three movements and bears the dedication, “To sister Nicoletta”.
The central work on this release is the four movement Trio in D major for guitar, violin and cello which we are told was composed in 1833 during Paganini’s visit to London. The concluding work is the Quartet No. 15 in A minor which it seems was his fifteenth and final work for guitar quartet. This was composed around 1838, is cast in five movements and is especially distinctive as the viola takes the leading part in place of the violin. It is said that Paganini was inspired to compose the score at a time when his treasured violin, a 1742 Guarneri del Gesù, had been badly damaged and he had developed a great interest in the viola.
The Offenburger Trio take their name from the city of Offenburg in Germany which is the home town of the trio members and where they were founded in 1981. The brothers Frank and Rolf Schilli and Martin Merker are augmented by the services of renowned guitarist Siegbert Remberger.
I find these Paganini scores full of surprises both in terms of layout, choice of instrumentation and musical content. It is fascinating how sometimes Paganini’s writing will display a certain vulgarity and the next minute one is enchanted by his charm and warmth. It is often difficult to forecast what Paganini will do next in these scores and this unpredictability is a characteristic that can be highly appealing.
In the hands of these artists these works burst with colour and energy. I especially enjoyed the Offenburger’s interpretation of the Quartet No. 15 which is easily the finest of the three scores. The players in the opening maestoso display the buoyancy and swaying character of the stop-start nature of the movement with its Mozartian main theme. In the second movement I appreciated the ensemble’s playful cavorting in the minuet followed at 01:41 by a superbly performed solo part for guitar in the trio section. An agitated matador-like stand-off in the recitativo is highly appealing and in the adagio cantabile the viola of Rolf Schilli sings a tender song with rapt confidence. The Offenburgers convincingly bustle and gallop their way through the concluding movement rondo that contains a cheerful and memorable theme.
The recorded sound is of high quality and I was delighted with the clarity and balance. The booklet notes are interesting and reasonable informative, and the front cover has a quite spectacular painting of Paganini which adds to the appeal of the release. 
Although I am not especially familiar with the recordings, for those wishing to explore this repertoire further there is a five disc collection of the complete Paganini Guitar Quartets from the Paganini Quartet on Dynamic DYN 159/1-5.
These rarely encountered scores on this well presented Ambitus release are certainly worthy of attention.
Michael Cookson


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