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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
String Quartet in A major Op.2 TrV95 (1881) [29:02]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Crisantemi (1890) [5:52]
Three Minuets in A major (1884) [9:14]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
String Quartet in E minor (1873) [22:21]
Enső Quartet
rec. St. Anne's Church, Toronto, Canada, 30 July-2 August 2012
NAXOS 8.573108 [66:29]

Another disc of tremendous quality from the very talented Ensō Quartet. Their Naxos disc of the Ginastera quartets was one of my 'discs of the year' in 2009. With very different aesthetic and musical demands these are performances of equal stature.

It is a neat premise for a collection - take three eminent composers famous for their operatic compositions and bring together their only works in the quartet medium. All of the works here have been recorded before and often although the preferred coupling usually involves other Italian composers instead of Strauss. Apart from the national links there is some sense in that choice as the Strauss quartet, for all its easy charm, is very much an apprentice work. The inescapable impression is that Strauss was using the quartet form as a way to flex his compositional muscles. The part-writing is immaculate, the harmony and handling of form is never less than tasteful but I suspect no-one listening innocently would ever guess that Strauss was the composer - the Op. 2 belies just how early it is - and the first performance was given when the composer was just 17. All that having been said, this has to be the most elegant and simply beautiful performance I have heard of this work. Much of the technical demand lies in the first violin part and here Maureen Nelson is quite superb: effortlessly lyrical and fluent. Curiously for a composer who would make his name with opulently chromatic works straining the bounds of tonality this does not look to Wagner let alone Brahms for its models but back to the earlier German Romantics especially Mendelssohn and even Haydn. If Mendelssohn is the benevolent influence on the opening allegro then Haydn - right down to the scherzo and trio format - oversees both the following scherzo and the closing allegro moderato.

Throughout, the poise of the playing, the refinement of the voicing of the parts and the subtle interplay of the musicians is a mini master-class in the art of quartet performance. When I last reviewed the Strauss quartet as part of a set of his complete chamber music I was rather dismissive of the work damning it as not much more than talented pastiche. The performance there from the Sinnhoffer Quartett is perfectly adequate but politely bland when set alongside this new recording. The Ensō Quartet's approach might be termed dynamic elegance - alert, brimming with controlled energy yet perfectly poised. The work is no masterpiece and never will be but this performance makes the best possible case.

Placed rather neatly at the centre of the disc is Puccini's Crisantemi. Written as an elegy for Amedeo of Savoy in 1890, again it is an early work and pre-dates all of the operas for which he was famous. Yet, where the Strauss never rises above the level of youthful exercise, this contains much that is the essence of the composer yet to come. Quite literally in the sense that Puccini, realising he had written a good tune, recycled it almost immediately in his first operatic 'hit' Manon Lescaut. I have heard other performances that strive for a bigger more emotional impact but I like very much the way the Ensōs hold back, the emotion expressed in half-lights and muted grief; poised was the word that sprang to mind again. Puccini's only other effort for quartet was a group of three minuets written when he was 26. The second minuet is again extensively mined for themes in Act I of Manon Lescaut where its easy grace is used to good effect in the salon scene. These are by definition three slight works in their original quartet form but they succeed by not trying to be anything else. No surprise by now that the Ensō Quartet have the measure of these works exactly. Listen to the rubato Nelson applies to the repeat of the opening phrase [0:15 - track 7] - pulling back the tempo before pushing on with light spiccato. This is understated quality playing of the highest order. The most beautiful performances of these unpretentious works I have heard.

The Verdi quartet always comes as something of a surprise. As Keith Anderson's liner says, quite why Verdi, at sixty and at the height of his operatic powers decided to produce a string quartet is something of a mystery. The first two performances were private ones so clearly this was initially at least a personal rather than public project. No surprise that this is by some distance the most individual and accomplished composition on the disc. In this piece of absolute music Verdi seems to be taking technical delight in the handling of the musical material for its own sake rather than being beholden to any extra-musical dramatic narrative. So the presence of many imitative, contrapuntal and fugal passages throughout comes as no shock. All of these allow the Ensō Quartet to demonstrate yet again their remarkable unanimity in performance both technical and musical. When Verdi does sound more Verdian - as in the opening of the second movement Andantino - the players capture the canzona spirit of the music, Richard Belcher's resonant bass pizzicati providing a perfect foundation for Nelson's playfully spontaneous 'song'. Indeed playfully spontaneous is a good way of characterising the entire performance from all the players. In the best sense of the phrase there is an old-fashioned stylishness to the quartet's approach which allied to their superb technical address makes for some of the most enjoyable quartet playing I know. I was equally as impressed recently by the Escher Quartet and their Zemlinsky discs for Naxos - this is up there at that standard. Listen to the bite and superb ensemble playing of the tarantella-like third movement Prestissimo [tr. 11]. In the trio section the cello is given a tenor's song that is played here by Richard Belcher with exactly the right kind of vocal freedom; my only sorrow is that this section is so short. The closing Scherzo Fuga is a compositional tour-de-force. Quite deliberately, I am sure, Verdi employs a whole series of contrapuntal tricks just to prove to any doubters that he can write fugues with inversions and counter-subjects combined with the best of them. In this performance the Ensō bring the work and indeed the disc to a rousingly impressive end.

Unlike say, the Bruckner String Quintet, this Verdi quartet lies outside the main body of its composer's works. As such, it will always be of secondary interest. Allowing for that, this recording makes as impressive a case for it in its own right as can be imagined. All the music on this disc is easy on the ear and instantly appealing especially when heard in performances as uniformly excellent as this - string ensemble playing of this calibre is incredibly hard to achieve.

Worth mentioning the recording at this point. The Toronto church used gives a beautifully warm acoustic and the production/engineering pairing of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver are such an experienced team now that the understated excellence of the disc technically should come as no surprise. Some might feel the recording brings the players quite close, and there is a certain amount of audible breathing. My sense is that this does not compromise the tonal allure of the quartet or cramp their dynamic range which is impressively wide throughout. The standard of string quartet playing has never been higher but even in such a crowded field it strikes me that the Ensō Quartet are carving out a reputation for themselves as being amongst the very finest currently performing. From now on I will make a point of seeking out any music they perform and record - their name is rapidly becoming synonymous with excellence.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Sheppard