Giovanni BOTTESINI (1821-1889)
String Quartet no.1 in B flat, op.2 [22:04]
String Quartet no.2 in F# minor, op.3 [17:32]
String Quartet no.3 in D, op.4 [20:50]
Quartetto Elisa (Duccio Beluffi (violin); Gabriele Bellu (violin); Leonardo Bartali (viola); Giovanni Lippi (cello))
rec. Benedictine Abbey of Badia a Pacciana, Pistoia, Italy, September 1996. DDD
DYNAMIC DM8012 [61:23]
As the recording date suggests, this disc is a re-issue, originally released by Dynamic in 1998. Dynamic's website is notoriously unhelpful, and there is no indication as to why this has been re-released at this particular time, other than that it constitutes Volume 12 in a series entitled 'Delizie Musicali' ('Musical Delights'). The original disc is still widely available on the internet.
Nevertheless, for those that missed it the first time, this is a good opportunity to sample the music of Giovanni Bottesini, the 'Paganini of the double-bass' - albeit in works without the double-bass! Although he was involved in opera all his life, both as composer and conductor, Bottesini was one of the few composers of that era in Italy who also dedicated himself substantially to other forms, especially chamber music; such a decision being guaranteed to reduce a composer's public profile, and doubtless income.
Despite the occasional dabble - for example, a quartet in B minor dates back to the late 1830s - Bottesini did not properly start to devote himself to composing until he was nearly forty, hence the fact that these quartets, the first three of eleven in total, carry low opus numbers despite dating from around 1860.
A contemporary account of Bottesini's playing likened his tone to "a hundred nightingales caged in his double-bass", suggesting that his music was very beautiful; and the opening Schubert-like bars of the First String Quartet confirm Bottesini's unerring ear for enchanting melody and understated harmony. In fact, Bottesini's music is so instantly memorable that the listener is drawn to believe that he or she has always known these tunes - a lovely example is the heart-rending passage about four minutes into the Adagio of the First Quartet.
The Adagio ends with a simple yet beautiful pizzicato, the effect of which is spoilt somewhat by the too rapid fading-to-silence - an unnecessary and frequent sin of the production team on this recording.
The Second String Quartet sounds even more like Schubert, which should be read as a compliment. The lines are clean, the music uncomplicated yet sophisticated. Like the op.2 and op.4 works, this one has four movements, with the slow movement placed third. The jaunty Allegro Spiritoso finale sounds like a Neapolitan folk dance - indeed, the liner-notes describe the three works as Bottesini's "Neapolitan" quartets, although 'Sicilian' might be more accurate, as he was based around this time in Palermo.
The Third String Quartet is probably the finest of the three; the opening movement is more redolent this time of Beethoven. The claim in the notes that this work "remains unquestionably Italian" is suspect - not only for the fact that there were too few Italian quartets around for there to be a genuinely Italian sound, but also because this is a piece thoroughly suffused by the Austro-German tradition. Italian inflections are only really noticeable in the short Scherzo. The serene third movement features a curious fugue-style central section, and the vivacious Allegro finale sounds like an updated version of late Haydn.
The Elisa Quartet has a different violist (Fabrizio Merlini) these days, but otherwise is still going strong, having built up a substantial repertoire, though not, as yet, much of a discography. Their sound is warm and elegant, their ensemble playing adept.
The CD booklet is perfunctory, with brief notes in slightly unnatural translation, but the sound quality is generally very good in the atmospheric acoustic of the abbey at Badia - ironically misspelt in the booklet - though there is a slight left-channel bias.
Bottesini was a talented musician, and this is a disc worth considering if it can be found at a budget price that makes up for the production shortfalls and relative short timing.
Bottesini was a talented musician. A disc worth considering if it can be found at a budget price.