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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
String Quartet (1873) [23:40]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Crisantemi (1890) [8:00]
Giuseppe VERDI
Luisa Miller (excerpts, arr. Emanuele Muzio) [28:49]
Hagen Quartet
Rec. 1993/94, Bibliothekssaal, Polling, Germany
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 447 069-2 [60:52]

Although Italy produced the Quartetto Italiano, one of the leading ensembles of the later years of the last century, it is not well-known for producing original works in the medium, although there are more of them than you might immediately think of. Here we have the two best-known Italian works, plus one another which I shall come to.

Verdi wrote his only string quartet in his free time while attending rehearsals of Aida in Naples. It was performed by a few close friends and Verdi was reluctant to publish it. However, he finally did so in 1876 and it was immediately successful. He said of it: ‘I don’t know whether the quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it’s a quartet.’ Verdi must have known the quartets of the Viennese masters well and his quartet writing shows no sign of inexperience or awkwardness. There are four movements. The first is in sonata form but without a development section. The themes are strong and varied. There follows a playful mazurka marked Andantino which begins as if it is going to be like an aria. The scherzo is marked Prestissimo and with its abrupt accents recalls Beethoven, while the trio is Schubertian. The finale is titled Scherzo Fuga and is indeed a fugue. Verdi had studied fugue writing in his youth and her he shows himself adept with the form, which he turns to dramatic ends. Although Verdi seems to have regarded this work as little more than a jeu d’esprit, it is a good deal more than that: it is indeed both beautiful and a real quartet.

Puccini wrote Crisantemi, his only chamber work, in a single night as a lament for the death of a friend. This was Amadeo di Savoia, Duke of Aosta, an Italian prince who was briefly king of Spain before abdicating and returning to Italy. Crisantemi is Italian for chrysanthemums, which are associated with mourning in Italy. There are two themes, which are developed in a rich, rather Tristanesque idiom. This short piece is a jewel and makes one regret that Puccini did not return to the medium. Unfortunately, its brevity makes it difficult to programme, though it is occasionally heard as an encore.

After these two fine works it is a mystery to me why the Hagen Quartet chose excerpts from Muzio’s transcription of themes from Verdi’s Luisa Miller to complete the disc. Luisa Miller of 1849 is either the last of Verdi’s early operas or the first of his middle period which was shortly to produce the triptych of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, which have held the stage ever since. It is loosely based on a play by Schiller but with considerable alterations. I have seen it and was very disappointed, stock characters in stock situations and the music seemed far from being Verdi’s best. Verdians may disagree. Muzio was a pupil, later a friend, of Verdi, who made vocal scores and other arrangements of his work and went on to become a composer himself. This transcription was made for amateurs to play and it is quite skilfully done but it was not worth reviving. I wish the Hagen had given the space instead to a quartet by Boccherini, Cherubini, Busoni, Malipiero, Petrassi, Respighi, Berio or Nino Rota – there are a number of Italian string quartets which deserve to be better known.

The Hagen Quartet are seasoned performers who have accumulated an extensive discography. They play with a suave beauty which is very fetching and with no lack of vigour in the more energetic passages, particularly of the Verdi. The recording is a little close but is easily tamed. This is worth hearing for the Verdi and Puccini.

Stephen Barber

Hagen Quartet:
Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt (violins), Veronika Hagen (viola), Clemens Hagen (cello)

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