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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
String Quartet No. 4 in D major [15.14]
String Quartet No. 5 in E minor [21.46]
String Quartet No. 6 in G minor [13.49]
Pleyel Quartett Köln
rec. 2014, Pfarrkirche St Martin, Messerich (Eifel)
CPO 555240-2 [51.06]

Who knew? It turns out that Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, to give him his full name, not only wrote more than 70 operas – including some of the most famous ever - but also eighteen string quartets (or nineteen, depending on your source).

Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that, unlike me, many people knew. The first in the current series on CPO, featuring the first three quartets, was recorded back in 2013, and reviewed for MusicWeb International by Stephen Greenbank. That disc was made by the Pleyel Quartett Köln; the same group now gives us numbers 4. 5 and 6, recorded in 2014. I’m not sure why the disc has been lying on someone’s shelf for over five years.

If you want the other quartets, numbers 7-18, they’re still available for download from CPO in recordings by the group the Revolutionary Drawing Room. It does seem with just a cursory listen that numbers 16, 17 and 18 (CPO 9992822) are in a completely different league from quartets 4, 5 and 6 on the disc under review.

These same three quartets were recorded back in 2003 by the Quartetto Bernini on Tactus, and the MWI review was not very complimentary, noting that the recording was “spoilt by a noticeable echo.” You can hear the disc on Spotify, and the church of SS Pietro e Paulo in Salisano appears to be more of a cathedral than a parish church.

No such problems with this CPO disc, which is very well recorded in a church in the picturesque Eifel area of Germany (not in a studio, as before, though German radio is credited and the sleeve bears the legend ‘Deutschlandfunk Kultur’ - German radio culture). Once again, the two violinists take it in turns to play the first violin part. They use original instruments and are sparing with the vibrato.

The quartets were written in Donizetti’s late teens when he failed to get anywhere with his first attempt at opera in Bologna. He returned to Bergamo, and played quartets with the man who promoted his musical career, Johann Simone Mayr, a Bavarian composer who was chapel master at Bergamo’s principal church and ran the school which Donizetti attended. Presumably Donizetti, who came from a very poor family, at least got to eat when he appeared with a new quartet at the weekly soirées at the home of a rich gentleman, Alessandro Bertoli.

These are mellifluous and entertaining quartets, but not by any stretch of the imagination indicative of Donizetti’s future fame. If you were hoping for an early appearance of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ or similar – I know I was – think again. By all accounts, Donizetti was a well-liked, handsome and amiable young man, and that’s how the music sounds.

Number five is probably the most interesting. It has the longest first movement of these three quartets; during it the composer plays the minor off against the major. There are some clever rhythms in the ‘Minuetto’ and ‘Presto’, while the ‘Allegro agitato’ is certainly agitated. Number six has a final ‘Presto’ which lasts just 1:35; it finishes abruptly, as if Donizetti was eager to get off for his tea. Maybe he was. At least none of the movements outstay their welcome, but none of them is as developed and original as Haydn, whose quartets had been published 20 years or more before these Donizetti quartets were composed.

I see Donizetti also wrote 16 symphonies and a number of instrumental concertos. I can only find a sinfonia concertante in D major recorded so far, so there’s probably more unknown Donizetti to come.

Chris Ramsden
Performers: Ingeborg Scheerer, Milena Schuster (violins); Andreas Gerhardus (viola); Marie Deller (cello)

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