Ildebrando PIZZETTI (1880-1968)
String Quartet No.1 in A major (1906) [27:48]
String Quartet No.2 in D (1932-33) [37:37]
Lajtha Quartet - Leila Rásonyi (violin I), György Albert (violin II), László Kolozsvári (viola), László Fenyo (cello)
rec. Festetich Castle, Budapest, Hungary, January 1995
NAXOS 8.570876 [65:25]

Ildebrando Pizzetti is yet another composer latterly indebted in part to Naxos/Marco Polo for their recent musical rehabilitation. His Concerto Del’Estate on Naxos was a revelation as indeed was his unaccompanied Messa di Requiem which won a Gramophone award on Hyperion (CDA67017). So I was looking forward to hearing his two string quartets. This release is a typical Naxos repackaging of the 1995 Marco Polo full price release (8.223722). As such it has the benefit of bargain price but it also serves to show just how far performance standards have come in the last fifteen years. Not that the Lajtha Quartet are by any means poor simply not as polished as groups on this label now are. The fact that they were a short-lived ensemble; founded in 1990 and split by the middle of the same decade implies that not all was well. This is the first time I have heard these two quartets and there is an abiding impression that they could be played with more finesse and grace. The more worrying performance quirk is that the dynamic range seems to have been compressed into a range of quite loud to very loud which is somewhat wearing. My sense is that this is a performer’s choice not that of technical reproduction. This is because the quartet favour a playing style that emphasises string contact and an intense vibrato. There are a few occasions through the disc where the tonal pressure is reduced and almost without exception the music is then able to relax and breathe immediately. I also have a lingering doubt about the absolute unanimity of intonation. Again, it is not that the tuning is poor, just that I have a recurring sense of chords not bedded down as one – the first violinist plays at a pitch a fraction higher than his colleagues. The reason that this jars even more than it might otherwise is that Pizzetti’s first quartet (although not numbered No.1 by him) is modally based. This gives it a spiritual affinity with works like Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet. Readers who know that work through the fine Maggini or Medici recordings or the wonderful Music Group of London version led by Hugh Bean will understand what I mean. It’s the way in which these very ‘pure’ modal chords move and how perfection of tuning is paramount to the emotional impact of the work.

Written when Pizzetti was in his mid-twenties this is a big and confident work. John Waterhouse has provided a good and detailed liner note in which he finds a similarity with some of Dvorák’s lyrical flow without the direct folksong-indebtedness of a Vaughan Williams or Kodaly. That’s a very legitimate point and gives the music an appealingly sunny and open-air feel. I particularly liked the third movement Tema con variazioni for its easy skill and the fluency of the writing. Ironically this is also a movement that shows the performer’s shortcomings with several ensemble slips in both rhythm and intonation. The second variation is a gem – shimmering rustling accompaniments over which solo instruments sing an Auvergne-like song. Apparently Pizzetti denied ever using folksong directly but the influence is present for all to hear. The Finale is the least immediately impressive movement of the work and again suffers in this performance from a lack of perceptible direction or development. It is interesting the way in which Pizzetti uses busily restless ostinati in the accompaniments. This seems to pre-echo Janáček’s use of similar figurations - albeit with a generally higher level of dissonance – in his famous pair of quartets from the 1920s.

By the time Pizzetti came to write his second quartet in 1932-33 he was perceived in the community of contemporary Italian composers to represent the worst kind of reactionary conservatism. The initial impression is of something big, sombre and almost severe. Waterhouse finds a Germanic intensity in the opening – an opinion with which I would once again agree. This is altogether more overtly serious than the earlier quartet and as such is able to absorb the Lajtha’s chosen performing style with less damage to the piece itself. I still can’t help feeling that allowing more air and light into the texture would have made the piece far more approachable. Running not far short of forty minutes this is a very substantial work but emotionally and harmonically it is rather marooned historically. The writing is very demanding for all the players with Pizzetti seemingly determined to produce as thick and rich a texture from just four players as is (in)humanly possible. The most effective passages – the coda of the first movement for example – are when Pizzetti allows the texture to thin and his natural vein of lyricism to prevail. Even Waterhouse acknowledges some turgid writing and the rather earnest quality of the second movement Adagio. It is again consciously serious and almost academic in tone. It’s as though Pizzetti felt that he had to produce music fitting to his status as one of Italy’s senior musical figures and director of the Milan Conservatory. The close of this movement contains the most relaxed and radiant writing. The third movement Movimento di Scherzo benefits greatly from being the most concise and is probably the finest single passage on the disc. There are more intonation issues when Pizzetti writes – as he often does – in unison octaves. For sure this is always a test but one here that would have been the better for at least one more take. The galumphing rustic feel is instantly appealing and quite a relief after the furrowed-brow intensity that preceded it. It proves to be brief refuge and the Finale is once again of a more sober mien. The same issues with both music and performance are on display here with the complex heavy textures testing the players beyond the point of audible comfort. The music is marked Molto concitato (very agitated) which here becomes hectoring. With good sense Pizzetti does not pursue this mood to the death instead letting the themes evolve into a heroic hymn-like peroration. Apparently there is no programme to the work but this final arrival at a sunlit upland sounds like more than simple compositional imperative.

The recording is perfectly acceptable if a little close – something which exacerbates the sense of unrelenting intensity. I imagine collectors who have enjoyed previous Naxos, Eloquence or Hyperion releases of this composer’s work will want to add this disc to their collection. For others I would say this is not the disc with which to start one’s acquaintance with this interesting composer. As with many of the early Marco Polo discs this is a performance where one is grateful of the opportunity to hear such rare but interesting repertoire whilst at the same time realizing that it has more to offer than the current performance might suggest.

Nick Barnard
One is grateful of the opportunity to hear such rare but interesting repertoire whilst at the same time realizing that it has more to offer than the current performance might suggest.