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Love and Death
Joaquín TURINA (1882-1949)
La oración del torero, Op. 34 (1925) [8:40]
György KURTÁG (b. 1926)
Ligatura Y from Jelek, játékok és üzenetek for string trio (1989) [2:34]
Arioso interrotto (di Endre Szervánszky): Larghetto from Officium breve (1988-89) [1:25]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
I crisantemi (1890) [6:15]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923) [18:54]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D.810 “Death and the Maiden” (1824-26) [42:36]
Navarra String Quartet
rec. 2019, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, UK

This CD was my introduction to the Navarra String Quartet and they make a very positive impression here. The British-based quartet was formed in 2002 at the Royal Northern College of Music. They derived their name from a red wine from the Navarra region of northern Spain known for its multi-coloured landscapes. This choice of name reflects the cultural diversity of the quartet’s members with English and Dutch violinists, Romanian violist, and Irish cellist.
Their repertoire is also highly diverse, as evidenced by the works on this CD that is dedicated “to everyone who has suffered loneliness or loss throughout this challenging period, wishing to bring solace and serenity.” The theme of the programme, love and death, is thus prevalent throughout the music presented.

Surrounding the two major works, both staples of the quartet repertoire, are four short pieces which are less often recorded. The opening number by Joaquín Turina, La oración del torero or Bullfighter’s Prayer, is wonderfully evocative of the Spanish warmth in anticipation of the bullfight. Originally composed for lutes, the score also specified the string quartet medium for which it is very well suited. I had not heard this piece before, but with its sultry melodiousness it deserves greater exposure.

As usual with Kurtág, his two works here are very brief with the Arioso interrotto especially fragmentary. Ligatura Y was originally included in a volume of piano pieces as one of the composer’s Signs, Games, and Messages. His transcription for string trio consists of mostly quiet chords with pauses between them and major, minor, and at times dissonant harmony. The Arioso interrotto is a tribute to Kurtág’s deceased friend, the composer Endre Szervánszky. It is the third movement of the Officium breve (a suite in memory of Szervánszky), the movement only twelve bars long that, as the title indicates, just stops. However its brevity, it is quite moving and harmonically conservative.

The programme begins with the Turina and the first of the Kurtág works preceding the great Janáček quartet, which is followed by Puccini’s I crisantemi (Chrysanthemums). This piece used to crop up on quartet programmes, or as a string orchestra arrangement, more often in the past—at least as I recall. It is a gem. Puccini composed it following the death of Amedeo of Savoy, also known as the Duke of Aosta, who was the son of King Emmanuel II of Italy. Chrysanthemums are flowers particularly associated with Italian funerals. This sad, but beautiful late-Romantic work receives an affectionate and well-integrated performance with excellent balance among the instruments. Like everything on the disc, recorded in the superb acoustics of Wyastone Concert Hall, the sound provides plenty of bloom on the instruments.

There is extensive recorded competition, of course, for the Janáček and Schubert works. Janáček’s two string quartets are now regularly performed as standard pieces of twentieth-century chamber music. It wasn’t always the case, where one had to turn to a native Czech group for really idiomatic accounts of these marvelous works. Such quartets as the Škampa and Talich still hold pride of place for me, but the Navarra in the First Quartet is not far behind and better than some of the other non-Czech quartets who have recorded them. They play with dramatic flair, but are not wayward as the Doric Quartet can be in their recording. They choose good tempos and are both warmhearted and incisive as the music demands. Their sul ponticello is otherworldly in the second and third movements, and the dynamic range is excellent. As in the other works on the programme, they are accorded terrific sound with a natural balance among their instruments.

The Navarra Quartet’s account of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet is also among the best of the competition. The timing of their performance is unusually long because unlike most groups they take the first movement repeat, but their tempos are in the normal range. As with the Janáček, they can throw caution to the winds and are unafraid of making an ugly sound on occasion. At times one can feel the rosin flying off their bows! In the famous slow movement they play the main theme, taken from Schubert’s song, very legato. This contrasts with another favourite account of mine by the Endellion Quartet on a BBC Music cover disc, who are more detached. I find the highly-regarded Quartetto Italiano just a bit too measured and heavy here, though elsewhere they have a lot going for them. The Navarra choose a sprightly tempo for the third movement and slow down considerably for the trio which they play simply and beautifully. Their finale has a lightness that contrasts with the earlier movements, while still with plenty of power in the slow, declamatory sections that juxtapose the main theme. This may not be as clean a performance as some, but it is surely exciting!

As a whole, this disc with its generous timing has much to offer the listener in the variety and quality of the works presented. It also well demonstrates the versatility of the Navarra String Quartet. The CD is housed in a bi-fold album with very attractive art work on the cover. The accompanying booklet gives fairly extensive information on the background of the works, but little about the performers. For that one must surf the internet. If this particular programme appeals, there is no reason to hesitate.

Leslie Wright

Magnus Johnston (violin); Marije Johnston (violin); Sascha Bota (viola); Brian O’Kane (cello)

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