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Quartetto Italiano
Prima la musica – The Complete Warner Recordings
rec. 1946-1959, Milan, Italy
WARNER CLASSICS 9029673920 [14 CDs: 622:05]

The Quartetto Italiano is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest string quartets of the twentieth century. It has performed on the recital stage from its formation in 1945 to the disbanding in 1980. Prima la musica brings together the recordings for labels now part of the Warner Classics catalogue.

In 1942, Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Lionello Forzanti and Franco Rossi – students at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana at Siena – decided that after the war they would form a string quartet. The players, all in their twenties, indeed founded the Nuovo Quartetto Italiano in 1945, and gave the first recital on 12th November at Carpi in the Province of Modena. The word Nuovo in the name was meant to avoid confusion with an existing chamber group. The ensemble dispensed with the word in 1951. The Quartet flourished and toured extensively across Europe and the United States, becoming increasingly well-known internationally. In 1947, Lionello Forzanti decided to pursue a conducting career. His successor Piero Farulli played with the Quartet for thirty years, and due to ill health was replaced by Dino Asciolla in the group’s last three years.

The Quartetto Italiano has been described by terms such as ‘unified’, ‘technically flawless’, ‘perceptive’, ‘mastery’ and ‘beauty’. It is hard to disagree with any of them. In 1951, the Quartet made its first tour of the USA. After the first New York City recital, the composer and music writer Virgil Thomson was inspired to write in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘the finest string quartet, unquestionably, that our century has known. Perfection is the only word to describe this playing, perfection of a kind and degree that no quartet lover living, and no quartet player, has heard before.’

Throughout its long career, the Quartetto Italiano has built up a sizable and valuable legacy discography. It recorded for Columbia, Decca and predominantly Philips. The fourteen-CD Warner Classics set comprises almost entirely the Columbia recordings, and a work each by Debussy and Leonardo Vinci on the label Durium Telefunken. Some of these recordings – reissued over the years on such labels as Testament, Tahra, Angel, Stauffer and EMI – can be very difficult to find. In 1946, the Nuovo Quartetto Italiano made its debut recording on 78s with Debussy’s String Quartet and Vinci’s very short Gavotta; both appear on CD 1.

I have encountered four Quartetto Italiano sets in the catalogue. A seven-CD set Quartetto Italiano – The Early Recordings (1946-1952) was released in 2009 on Amadeus. I greatly admire Decca’s thirty-seven-CD box Quartetto Italiano – Complete Decca, Philips & DG Recordings; those labels are now part of the Universal Music Group. The box was released in 2015 as a limited edition to mark the seventy-year anniversary of the founding of the Quartetto Italiano; eleven of the CDs had their first international Decca release. This would be the set to have but sadly the label has discontinued it (some new sets are available from retailers at top prices).

In 2019, the Audite label released a three-CD set Quartetto Italiano – The Complete RIAS Recordings (review), the radio broadcast recordings from 1951-1963 made at the Berlin RIAS studios. Three of the nine works are receiving their first appearance on CD. There are also several Quartetto Italiano CDs on the Pentatone Classics label, licensed from the Decca Music Group and remastered to SACD.

The recording legacy of the Quartetto Italiano consists chiefly of Austro-German repertoire: Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and some Webern. There has been considerable praise for the 1967-1975 complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets on ten Philips CDs. Frenchmen Debussy and Ravel also found favour with the Quartetto Italiano, as did Russians Borodin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. The Italian composers recorded by the quartet include Boccherini, Busoni, Cherubini, Giovanni Gabrieli, Riccardo Malipiero, Vivaldi and Verdi (whose string quartet the Quartetto Italiano recorded twice).

Those who already have some of the recordings in this set will want to know which recordings have been newly remastered. It is pleasing to report that the entire set has been remastered in 2021 by Art & Son Studio of Annecy, an audio mastering and sound restoration company in France with an impressive reputation. All the remasterings are to 192kHz/24bit from the original tapes, unless the original tapes could not be used: in the two 1946 works on CD 1, and all six works on CD 12. All new remasterings are an improvement, except the still unsatisfying sound of those 1946 recordings – but they have value as historical documents.

In this Warner box, works have been arranged chronologically by the recording date. Discs 1-12 contain mono recordings, the last two stereo. The liner notes list recordings presented on CD for the first time, notably Mozart’s Quartets Nos 14 and 15, Beethoven’s Quartet No 13, Brahms’s Quartet No 3 and Schumann’s Quartet in A major. There also are CD debuts of two pieces by Gabrieli and one each by Marini, Neri and Alessandro Scarlatti.

The Columbia recordings can be difficult to track down but I managed to compare several of them with this newly remastered set. Fourteen works present here appear on three Testament CDs, of which I have two. I was also able to compare Quartetto Italiano’s Columbia recordings of the quartets by Debussy, Ravel and Milhaud (No 12). They were issued in the EMI Réfèrences series, and digitally remastered for issue in 2001 (review). The 2021 versions are a discernible improvement. Overall, considering the age of the recordings in the new set, the sound quality is a success; there is little noticeable deterioration, and the clarity and detail are splendid.

The original album cover artwork on all the card CD sleeves is a nice touch but the cover art is rather plain. Recording details – dates and original record numbers – appear on the back of each sleeve. The liner notes comprise a basic list of works and Tully Potter’s essay Prima la musica, which gives context for this set. The playing of the Quartetto Italiano is unqiestionably to a consistently high standard, with the added advantage of improved sound quality and ten CD premieres. Admirers of the Quartetto Italiano and chamber music in general will surely appreciate this set.

Michael Cookson

Nuovo Quartetto Italiano (name from formation in 1945 to 1951), Quartetto Italiano (name from 1951 to disbandment in 1980).

Original members: Paolo Borciani (violin I), Elisa Pegreffi (violin II), Lionello Forzanti (viola), Franco Rossi (cello). Piero Farulli replaced Lionello Forzanti in 1947, and Dino Asciolla replaced Piero Farulli in 1977.
Work List
CD 1 [71:19]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
1-4. String Quartet in G minor, Op 10
Leonardo VINCI (1690-1730)
From Twelve Soli per violino e arpicordo
rec. March 1946 Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi, Milan
5. Gavotta (transc. Guido Gerrini)
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
6-9. String Quartet in A major, Op 39 No 8, G213
10-13. String Quartet in E flat major, Op 58 No 2, G243
rec. July 1953, Milan

CD 2 [58:35]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
1-4. String Quartet No 14 in G major, K387*
5-8. String Quartet No 15 in D minor, K421*
rec. July 1953, Milan

CD 3 [39:51]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No 13 in B-flat major, Op 130*
rec. July 1953, Milan

CD 4 [43:08]
1-4. String Quartet in G minor, Op 10
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
5-7. String Quartet No 12, Op 252 (1945)
rec. February 1954, Milan

CD 5 [37:46]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
1-4. String Quartet No 3 in B-flat major, Op 67*
rec. July 1954, Milan

CD 6 [38:31]
Roman HOFSTETTER (1742-1815)
1-4. String Quartet in F major, Op 3 No 5 (attrib. Haydn)
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
5-8. String Quartets No 2 in D minor, Op 76 No 2 'Fifths'
rec. July 1954, Milan

CD 7 [38:08]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
1-3. String Quartet No 2 in F major, Op 92
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1883-1973)
4-5. String Quartet No 4
rec. August 1955, Milan

CD 8 [44:39]
Franz Joseph HAYDN
1-4. String Quartet No 3 in C major, Op 33 No 3 'The Bird'
5-8. String Quartet No 4 in B-flat major, Op 76 No 4 'Sunrise'
rec. August 1955, Milan

CD 9 [44:07]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
1-4. String Quartet No 17 in B-flat major, K458 'The Hunt'
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
5-8. String Quartet No 2 in C major, D 32
rec. November 1955, Milan

CD 10 [35:41]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
1-4. String Quartet No 10 in E-flat major, Op 74 'Harp'
rec. January 1956, Basilica di Sant'Eufemia, Milan

CD 11 [44:37]
Baldassare GALUPPI (1706-1785)
1-3. Concerto a quattro No 1 in G minor
4-5. String Quartet in G major, Op 44 No 4 'La Tiranna Spagnola' G223
Giuseppe Maria CAMBINI (1746-1825)
6-8. String Quartet in G minor
rec. July 1956, Milan

CD 12 [39:49]
Giovanni GABRIELI (1544/47-1612)
Canzoni per sonar a quattro:
1. I. Canzon prima, Ch. 186 'La Spiritata'*
2. IV. Canzon quarta, Ch. 189*
Biagio MARINI (1594-1663)
3-6. Balletto primo a tre, Op 22 No 1*
Massimiliano NERI (c. 1618 - c. 1670)
7. Sonata quinta a quattro, Op 2 No 5*
Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692)
8. Capriccio in F major
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
9-12. Sonata a quattro, No 4 in D minor*
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
13-14. Sonata a quattro in E-flat major 'Al Santo Sepolcro', RV 130
rec. November 1956, Milan

CD 13 [39:41]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
1-4. String Quartet in A major, Op 41 No 3*†
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
5-7. Three Pieces for string quartet (1914)†
rec. 1959, Milan

CD 14 [46:13]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
1-4. String Quartet in F major, M. 35†
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
5-7. String Quartet No 3 in G major, KV156 (KV134/b)†
rec. 1959, Milan

* On CD for the first time
† Stereo (all other recordings are mono)

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