All three of these quartet works have their enthusiasts and their advocates; all three have had good recordings and turn up - though with relative infrequency - in concert. None of them can quite be said to have become canonical, to be amongst those works which every serious quartet must have in its repertoire.
Verdi’s only quartet - indeed this is his only surviving contribution to chamber music - was written when he was in Naples for rehearsals of Aida
; cast illness left him with time on his hands and he employed it in the composition of this quartet. On its completion he summoned four members of the opera house orchestra to his room to play it for him! Though Verdi invested no great ambitions in the work, public performances soon followed and the work was much admired. There is a fascinating piece on the quartet by no less than Alfredo Casella in the 1930 edition of Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music.
Praising the work’s
firm commitment to “the strict lines of a classical quartet” Casella – perhaps not surprisingly – sees it as a work which “warns the younger generation [of Italian composers] that to persist in the operatic instrumental forms of the nineteenth century is to flog a dead horse [and] at the same time points out the new way, and spurs the younger men on to the energetic cultivation of true instrumental forms”. Casella’s judgement no doubt involves a certain amount of special pleading, but his general sense of the work’s real quality is surely justified. The opening allegro has great dramatic vitality and contrast; the second theme having about it an atmosphere of unexpected tranquillity. Casella shrewdly observed of the ensuing Andantino that “this movement is least characteristic of the composer … the influence of German romanticism, indeed, makes itself felt throughout in a certain harmonic restlessness and a decided tendency towards chromaticism”. There is more that is Verdiesque and operatic about the prestissimo, agitatedly lyrical and expressive. The closing scherzo-fuga is a concentrated movement of a quality that could hold its own with all but the most outstanding string quartet writing. This is music radiant with the kind of wise spirit that later found full expression in Falstaff
. The Britten Quartet is particularly pleasing in this movement, assertive and lucid but also relaxed. Of the earlier movements, the first is a little on the stiff side but the second and third are attractively done.
Cherubini wrote six quartets
, only the first three of which were published during his lifetime. The first, in E flat, is essentially classical in conception, but the classical structures struggle to restrain, as it were, romantic impulses towards a quasi-operatic vehemence and colour. The Britten Quartet play the first movement’s slow introduction very beautifully and the following ‘allegro agitato’ is passionate yet pellucid in its delineation of the three themes of the movement. The following larghetto (‘sans lenteur’) is almost religious in tone, and Cherubini’s use of polyphony in the variations on the theme reinforces that sense; again the music is played with sympathy and authority. The lively scherzo – which has some ‘Spanish’ touches to it – is perhaps just a little underpowered, but the closing allegro, with its pronounced rhythms is well handled.
La Oración del Torero
is a single movement, initially written for four lutes (it was written for the Aguilar Lute Quartet), but this version for string quartet and a version for string orchestra soon followed and presumably reflected the work’s popularity. The prayer (‘Oración) of the work’s title is chiefly audible at the beginning and the end of the work. In between quieter passages alternate with music full of hard-driving pulsating rhythms and suddenly dramatic emphases. Perhaps one might take the opening and closing prayer-like passages to represent the bullfighter’s plea for protection before, and his prayer of gratitude after, the central encounter in the bullring. But one needn’t think of the work’s meaning merely as pictorial and illustrative. One enthusiast of the corrida
, the poet Roy Campbell, in his book Taurine Provence
(1932) claimed that “the drama of the bull-ring is the drama of human life – the attempt of the intellect to dominate the brute instincts and to impose its harmony on them”. Such is the battle - not one necessarily fought only in the bullring – ‘represented’ in Turina’s intriguing piece, which has more than a little Debussy about some of its writing (but then Turina had spent the years from 1905-1914 in Paris). The Britten Quartet perhaps captures more of the harmony of reason than it does of the ‘brute instincts’, but this is a performance of substance.
While these are not the very finest available performances of each of the individual works, they are good, intelligent readings which stand up well to repeated hearings. For anyone to whom the programme appeals the modest cost of this reissue will surely not be one they will come to regret. The twenty-year old sound stands up pretty well.