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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1868)
String Quartet No. 5 in E minor (1818) [21:04]
String Quartet No. 4 in D major (1818) [14:45]
String Quartet No. 6 in G major (1817-18) [13:09]
Quartetto Bernini: (Marco Serino (violin); Yoko Ichihara (violin); Gianluca Saggini (viola); Valeriano Taddeo (cello))
rec. 25-27 January 2003, Church of SS. Pietro e Paolo, Salisano, Rieti, Italy. DDD
TACTUS TC 790402 [48:58]


There can be few music-lovers who have not been impressed by Donizetti’s prowess as the composer of over seventy operas. Conversely, I’ll wager that the vast majority of readers will be unfamiliar with his many works for string quartet or even know that he wrote any.

As a ragged child in Bergamo, Donizetti had the good fortune to meet his teacher the Bavarian-born composer Johann Simon Mayr, who had changed his name to Giovanni Simone Mayr, who was Maestro di Cappella in Lombardy. Mayr became his mentor and later sent the young Donizetti to Bologna for further musical training with Padre Stanislao Mattei.

Donizetti began writing string quartets around the time of his first opera Il Pigmalione in 1816. Depending on the source one consults he was to write eighteen of them and I believe there are a couple of others in an incomplete state. Most of these quartets were products of his early career but not exclusively so as Donizetti was to return to the genre several times even after his success had been established.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Donizetti’s music in the last twenty years or so. Now there are a considerable number of recordings of his operas, many of which were released to celebrate the 1997 bicentennial of his birth. In spite of this the string quartets have not had the same interest shown in them as the operatic works. There have however been some recordings of the chamber works. The ensemble The Revolutionary Drawing Room have been recording the complete string quartets on original instruments for CPO Classics and I know of three volumes of a chamber music series on Arts Music as part of their Red Line series.

The general neglect of the string quartets is highlighted by the fact that they remained unpublished well into the twentieth century. We are informed in the booklet notes that, "…there exists neither a critical edition nor even a complete edition with separate parts for these quartets. For this recording, we were forced to consult the sources held in the Museo Donizettiano in Bergamo."

The first work on the disc is the four movement String Quartet No. 5 in E minor, from 1818. In the lengthy and dramatic opening Allegro the first violin of Marco Serino undertakes the lion’s share of the work. There was a rather uneasy feel to the Larghetto that contains a tedious cello part with Valeriano Taddeo playing virtually continuously. The players provide a breezy Minuetto, Presto and the final movement Allegro agitato is punctuated by agitated darting and leaping figures.

The String Quartet No. 4 in D major is a four movement work also from 1818. Donizetti seems to be in a hurry in the stirring opening Allegro and in the Canzone the Quartetto Bernini provide a solemn and almost reverential feel. The players are relaxed and cheerful in the Menuetto but despite their valiant efforts the rustic closing Allegro comes across as plain and tiresome.

The closing score here is the four movement String Quartet No. 6 in G major, composed around 1817-18. The appealing and lyrical first movement Allegro is played with great spirit by the nimble Quartetto Bernini. In the Larghetto they convey a certain seriousness and their interpretation of the brief Presto is bold and noble containing marked contrasts. It feels as if Donizetti is rushing to close the score with the extremely short and lacklustre Allegro giusto movement.

These fledgling Donizetti scores are only reasonably interesting. Despite the evident enthusiasm and commitment from Quartetto Bernini this music comes across as rather tedious, lacking in memorability and uninspiring. The sound quality from the Church of SS. Pietro e Paolo in Salisano is dry and bright but for me spoilt by a noticeable echo.

Those wanting to hear high quality string quartets from the early 1800s would be better served by looking towards the works of Mozart, Haydn and perhaps Cherubini.

Michael Cookson


 



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