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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
String Quartet No. 1 in E flat major [17:09]
String Quartet No. 2 in A major [19:48]
String Quartet No. 3 in C minor [18:05]
Pleyel Quartett Köln: Ingeborg Scheerer, Milena Schuster (violins); Andreas Gerhardus (viola); Andreas Müller (cello)
rec. 2013, Studio P 4, Berlin
CPO 777909-2 [55:19]

I was intrigued when this CD came up for review and couldn’t resist putting a bid in. I had narrow-mindedly pigeonholed Gaetano Donizetti as a composer of operas - period! That’s certainly not the whole story. Yes, the lion’s share of his compositional oeuvre is some 75 operas, but news to me was that he also wrote 16 symphonies, 193 songs, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, some instrumental concertos and sonatas and 19 string quartets, some of which remain unfinished. Reading his biography, it was undoubtedly his early ventures into quartet playing, with his teacher Johann Simon Mayr on viola, which ignited that initial spark. Haydn and Mozart were the staples, and these three early string quartets adhere to the tried and tested formula of the day  - fast outer movements, a second slow movement and a minuetto à la Haydn.
This is one of those albums which grows on you the more you hear it. I've listened to it through three times now. On the first occasion the music didn't strike me as particularly distinctive, and registered as being rather mediocre. I think the main problem is its lack of individuality, being rather derivative. These are early works, forged at the beginning of a career. I've never heard the later ones to compare and assess any growth and maturity. There are certainly no earth-shattering moments but, having said that, my subsequent listenings reveal music that is both lyrical and charming in its own way.

There's no doubting the commitment and passion of the of the Pleyel Quartett Köln. They appear to have taken up the mantle of CPO’s unfinished Donizetti quartet cycle, begun by the The Revolutionary Drawing Room on period instruments in the 1990s. That ensemble have set down quartets 7-18. The Pleyel Quartett Köln are no strangers to veering off into unchartered waters, having already recorded string quartets by Ignaz Pleyel, Ernst Wilhelm Wolf and Adalbert Gyrowetz. I note that in this recording the two violinists take it in turns to assume the first violin part.

Stephen Greenbank



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