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String Quartets by Opera Composers
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
(1890) [5:13]
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Il Tramonto, Poemetto lirico per mezzo-soprano e quartetto d’archi
(1914-18) [14:05]
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
(1881) [1:28]
Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
String Quartet in C major [17:42]
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
String Quartet in e minor (1872) [22:10]
Ruth Ziesack (soprano); Leipziger Streichquartett (Andreas Seidel (violin); Tilman Büning (violin); Ivo Bauer (viola); Matthias Moosdorf (cello))
rec. Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, 17-19 May 2007. DDD.
Booklet with notes and text and translation of Il Tramonto.
Experience Classicsonline

Chamber music by composers more famous for their work in other genres is often neglected.  Such, for example, is the case with the string quartets of Sibelius and Delius, recently reissued on the super-bargain Eloquence label and recommended by RB (442 9486 – see review).  I cannot pretend that the works on this new MDG CD are quite in the same league as the Sibelius and Delius, but they are certainly worth hearing in performances as good as these.
The title of the recording stretches the term ‘opera composer’ somewhat in the case of Respighi, who is much better known as the composer of colourful orchestral scores and orchestrations of baroque and earlier music.  Though his marionette opera on the Sleeping Beauty theme, La bella dormente nel bosco, was highly successful in its day, it has not survived in the repertoire.  As the Oxford Companion to Music puts it, “he never achieved more than ephemeral success in the field of dramatic music.”  Be that as it may, Il Tramonto is the most attractive work on this CD.
Respighi’s Technicolor music is highly evocative of the places and events named in the titles – Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, Roman Festivals, Church Windows, etc. – and Il Tramonto aims to achieve the same kind of descriptive quality, in this case of the sunset, employing the words of a poem by Shelley.  It isn’t one of Shelley’s greatest works – it doesn’t feature in either the Norton or Everyman, both substantial anthologies – but Respighi does wonders with it.
The subtitle specifies a mezzo, and Il Tramonto is usually sung by a genuine mezzo, a discrepancy silently ignored in MDG’s notes.  Nevertheless, Ruth Ziesak sings it well and her voice blends well with the quartet, though at times the string sound is a little too prominent.  Just occasionally I felt a touch of strain that indicated that she was singing outside her usual register.  I did not quite find here the light, shining timbre which one reviewer noted in her performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and, ultimately, memories of earlier performances by Anne-Sophie von Otter and Janet Baker (see below) are not erased.  Second and third hearings, however, found me warming much more to Ziesak.
There have been several other recordings, usually in a version with string orchestra, but they have tended not to stay long in the catalogue.  The highly-regarded performance by von Otter and the Brodsky Quartet, formerly on Vanguard, is now offered by Challenge Classics (CC72008); their slightly broader tempo (14:37 against 14:05) gives the music more room to breathe, which is to its advantage.  The Brodskys’ coupling of two other little-known Respighi string quartets may make a more logical offering for many prospective purchasers.
Another highly regarded version (Carol Madalin/ECO/Alfredo Bonavera, coupled with music by Martucci) has apparently recently been deleted by Hyperion – watch out for a possible reappearance on the budget-priced Helios label.  There was a Janet Baker performance on the now defunct Collins Classics label, coupled with the Botticelli Pictures; as someone who would listen to Janet Baker sing the telephone directory, I urge you to watch out for this to reappear (from Naxos, perhaps?)
The Puccini and Wagner items are little more than makeweights, but very worthwhile makeweights.  Crisantemi was written on the death of the brother of the King of Italy.  As in D H Lawrence’s short story An Odour of Chrysanthemums, the funereal significance of the flowers flavours this beautiful music, which was later re-used in his first operatic success, Manon Lescaut.  JW recommended a version coupled with Boccherini, Donizetti and Ysaye, which I think is no longer available (Pavane ADW7309 – see review).  The Leipzig players succeed in bringing out the music’s quality without making it sound lugubrious.
Wagner’s Albumblatt is a very short piece, as its name implies – a mere Blatt, or page, of music.  Wagnerians will be disappointed if they are looking for the hand of the composer of the Ring cycle, but it is an attractive enough work and receives a sympathetic performance here.
Humperdinck’s String Quartet which follows is a much more substantial work.  This attractive piece of late Romanticism receives a performance to match.  Having heard them in this quartet, I’d like to hear the Leipzig String Quartet in Mendelssohn or Dvořák.  MDG have already recorded them in a highly-regarded version of the complete Schubert String Quartets, which I intend to investigate.
The final work, the Verdi Quartet, also receives a good performance.  As with the Wagner, there is little in this work to suggest the composer of the operas, but it is attractive music, combining lyricism with drama.  Verdi regarded the work as private and forbade public performance but it certainly deserves to be heard and the performance once again is a sympathetic one.
As I have indicated in the case of the Respighi, there may be grounds for preferring other versions of some of these works, but, to the best of my knowledge, no other recording includes them all.  This version of the Humperdinck appears to be the only one in the catalogue. 
Couplings of the Puccini and Verdi are not uncommon, though only three appear to have survived in the catalogue, of which the Alberni Quartet at mid-price on CRD (CRD3366, with the Donizetti Quartet) is probably the most recommendable.  If you prefer the Humperdinck coupling to the Donizetti, as I think most listeners will, this new MDG recording will do well.  The ASV version recommended by DS in preference to the BIS version which he was considering – see review – is, I believe, no longer available, but the BIS version is (BISCD1006).
The recording throughout does full justice to the music, though I’m not sure that it’s as special as the note in the booklet claims: ‘MDG – Our Sound Ideal’.  The notes in the booklet are helpful and informative and the English translation is generally idiomatic.
Brian Wilson


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