In an intelligent attempt to create a niche for themselves
in a crowded string quartet 'marketplace', the Belgian Quatuor
Alfama have put together a programme not of new, obscure or
repertoire quartets, but of what is often referred to in English
by the German word Quartettsätze - quartet movements, in
Admittedly, the works in their recital are not all Quartettsätze
- in fact, only two are, strictly speaking. But they are chiefly
lesser known works by well-known composers, in many cases youthful
pieces that are not typical of the later, famous master. In
fact, in blind tests, many listeners might be hard-pushed to
recognise Rachmaninov from the Romance in G minor, which he
wrote in his mid-teens, or Schoenberg from the Presto in C that
predates his Two Songs op.1 by a couple of years.
Some of the pieces will, on the other hand, likely be too well-known
to fool anyone: Webern's Langsamer Satz ('Slow Movement'), for
example, has been recorded, or at least performed, by almost
every quartet worth its salt, as has Wolf's Serenade in G, better
known in its string orchestra arrangement as the Italian Serenade.
That, and especially Mendelssohn's Capriccio in E minor, op.81/3
and Sibelius's Andante Festivo are works from their composers'
maturity and belong, on the whole, to the standard repertoire,
if only the outer edges.
In fact, it is fair to say that the Alfamas could have cast
their nets considerably wider for their recital: Quartet Movements
by Josef Suk (op.31), Howard Hanson (op.23), Charles Griffes
(1903), Ethel Smyth (in A sharp minor), Hilding Rosenberg (1942),
Henry Cowell (1934), Niels Viggo Bentzon (op.507) or Peter Maxwell
Davies (1952), or unusual early pieces like George Antheil's
Lithuanian Nights or one or more of Mozart's numerous
fragments - any of these might have taken the recital at least
over the hour mark. Indeed, given the shortness of the disc,
a case could easily be made for the Quatuor Alfama's inclusion
of Schubert's founding father of the Quartettsatz itself, the
C minor D.703.
At any rate, the works the Alfamas do perform here are all glorious,
memorable pieces of music, and the relative obscurity of some
of them is as regrettable as it is puzzling. Anyone unfamiliar
with Wolf's sunny Serenade in its original scoring, Webern's
achingly beautiful - and by his later standards monumental -
Langsamer Satz, Schoenberg's best impression of Schubert, or
Sibelius's noble, solemn Andante Festivo - the composer's own
funeral music - is in for a real treat.
Overall the Quatuor Alfama, in this, their third recording,
acquit themselves well for an ensemble formed only six years
ago. They do have a fair amount of experience on their side
- the players are young, as the notes mention a few times, but
30-somethings are not that young! Their intelligence
and passion are manifest, as is their originality - most notably
in Webern's Langsamer Satz which, in the face of much competition,
they have done their own way, with a timing that is certainly
on the slow side, though by no means the most sluggish on CD.
Their respect for detail in the scores, dynamic markings in
particular, is also in abundant evidence. Occasionally there
is some suspect intonation, but overall the fine musicianship
and unusual programme makes this an appealing product, despite
the disc's short timing.
Sound quality in this studio recording is very good. The booklet
is attractive and informative. The CD case is made of card;
the English-Dutch-French booklet is housed in a slot which is
considerably less elegant than the music on the disc.
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