Quartetto Italiano: Complete RIAS Recordings – Audite 

by | Aug 19, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Quartetto Italiano: Complete RIAS Recordings = DONIZETTI: String Quartet No. 7 in F minor; CHERUBINI: String Quartet No. 5 in F Major; MALIPIERO: String Quartet No. 4; SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108; RAVEL: String Quartet in F Major; SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 8 in B-flat Major, D. 112; SCHUMANN: String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 41, No. 2; String Quartet No 3 in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3; HAYDN: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1 – Quartetto Italiano – Audite 21.456 (3 CDs) TT: 3 hr 32:36 (4/5/19) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

The Quartetto Italiano – Paolo Borciani and Elisa Pegreffi, violins; Piero Farulli, viola; Franco Rossi, cello – 1945-1979, represented the new art in chamber music in post-war Italy, a streamlined, sober, homogeneous sound that absorbed both the linear and harmonic implications of the music they addressed. The Quartetto Italiano appeared ten times in Berlin between 1951 and 1979; and upon their first concert 26 February 1952, RIAS had them appear in the studio for recordings. The present set collects their documented studio performances, 1951-1963.

The obscure fact that opera composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote 18 string quartets between 1818 and 1821 passes by the majority of music lovers. The F Minor Quartet No. 7 came to be on the occasion of the death of Marchese Giuseppe Terzi in 1819, inspiring Donizetti to write a programmatic depiction of Terzi’s illness and death, his wife’s despair, and the subsequent funeral. The Quartetto Italiano (18 October 1959) approaches the Agitatissimo first movement with a chromatic intensity that emanates from second violin Elisa Pegreffi. A melody noble sadness arises from Borciani over throbbing accompaniment, pleasant reminiscence in the midst of sometimes explosive fevers. No less chromatic, the grim Adagio, ma non troppo projects a haunted atmosphere, a resigned sense of plaintive farewell. The Presto third movement does not relieve the agitation but rather injects an air of desperation, in which the Trio offers passing comfort. The Marcia lugubre bears rhythmic impulses similar to the Beethoven funeral of the Eroica, grievous and poignant, especially in Rossi’s cello line.

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) made his reputation in opera, but by 1805 Parisian tastes altered, and Cherubini – who arduously studied Beethoven’s middle and late quartets – turned to religious and instrumental music. The 1835 Quartet No. 5 in F Major (rec. 13 October 1958) opens Moderato – Allegro, in which the daring harmony after the slow start assumes Wagnerian chromatics. The fluid Adagio moves to a spirited Scherzo – Allegro non troppo much in the Beethoven manner.  The Trio features a strong concertante part for the first violin Borciani, while the Finale: Allegro vivace utilizes fugue procedure in the manner of the Beethoven Op. 59, No. 3. The playing of the Quartetto Italiano has been chaste but impassioned.

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973) wrote eight quartets, and the Fourth, completed in 1934 (rec. 13 October 1963), does not bear any subtitle. The music reveals a clear advance on the earlier quartets as far as structure is concerned: here Malipiero relies more on counterpoint than previously and writes in longer paragraphs, although he deliberately eschews any attempt at traditional development in all his string quartets and even in his symphonies. In two movements, two successive Allegros, the quartet unfolds in rigid, angular, classically chiseled lines, ardent in feeling.  We do hear influences from Debussy, although veiled in subjective contours.

Nina Shostakovich would have been fifty years old in 1960, had she not succumbed to cancer in 1954. Dmitri Shostakovich dedicates his Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108 to her memory, here performed 13 October 1963. In a compressed three movements, attacca, the music subdivides the final

Allegro into two parts, creating the illusion of four movements. Allegretto, the chromatic, descending scale on the first violin, answered by three eighths, leads to the home key, while the cello brings in the second subject, in E-flat minor. This opening strategy proves elemental for the entire composition.  A compelling codetta and counter melody segue to music in 3/8 in eighths, pizzicato, returning us to the home key and the gentle conclusion.  Acerbic and nervous, Borciani’s violin proceeds forward, the angst palpable even in the gentle episodes. Muted and “minimalist,” the Lento moves into a dream-vision.  Between Pegreffi’s second violin and the viola’s move to D-flat, the cello’s low pedal, we fall into uneasy reverie. We realize the first violin has been silent. When Borciani returns, we suddenly confront the last movement Allegro, a dark, mean-spirited canon. Unbearably tense, this music refuses to permit solace, yet the pressure relents, moving into allegretto and an inversion of the musical material.  We return to F-sharp minor and its melancholy, here in the form of a nostalgic waltz. The pizzicato motion of movement one returns, and the music dissipates solemnly, morendo.

The 1902 Ravel String Quartet in F Major always represented a “mission” with the Quartetto Italiano, and here they perform this audacious work for RIAS 18 October 1959. Ravel dedicated the quartet to his master Gabriel Faure, although the spirit of the piece pays homage to the Debussy Quartet of 1893. While the color and melodic curve of the composition belong to Ravel, its classical structure reveals something of the “academy,” even as its means resist “classicism.” The Quartetto Italiano seems particularly alert to the demand for altered sound effects: pizzicato, con sordino, arpeggio, high fingerboard position.  The angular, lyric main melody will dissolve at the end of the first movement with a pianissimo rallentando (softly and slowly) typical of Faure.  The alternation of plucked and bowed melody sets the tone for the Assez vif: Tres rythme second movement.  The articulation here packs a potent bite. For the middle section, the ensemble employs mutes, expressive in a series of variations on the two scherzo motifs. Shifting harmonies and agogics define the exquisite, expansive slow movement, Tres lent, in which Farulli’s viola expresses what it can in the face of interrupting kernels from movement one.   A bit of animated intensity precedes the return to the original slow tempo in rare harmony. Faure felt the last movement Vif et agite too compressed, given its wickedly ostinato stubbornness in 5/8 that will resolve more symmetrically into ¾. The echoes of movement one contrast the aggressive and lyrical aspects of its character, leading to a powerful, resolute finale.

Schubert’s 1814 String Quartet in B-flat Major, D. 112, published posthumously (1863), was the product of a mere nine days’ labor, and it points to audacities in harmony he will develop later. Quartetto Italiano performs the work for RIAS 25 February 1951. On his manuscript Schubert notes that he composed the opening Allegro non troppo in four-and-one-half hours. This music evinces some spectacular shifts in dynamics, explosive in the Beethoven sense, spurring the Italiano ensemble to potent sounds. One of the several thematic groups dips down into G minor.  The major, rising chromatic group: B-flat, B natural, C – will no less occupy the Menuetto – Allegro third movement. The second movement Andante sostenuto proceeds in an emotional G minor and low tones from cello Rossi, but its sonata-form structure nods to Haydn.  Its emotional spectra, given that of a seventeen-year-old, belies his youth. The final movement Presto has violin Borciano teasing and lulling his colleagues from their soft haze to engage in mischievous, pianissimo eighths, and eventually they succumb.

For their RIAS concerts, the Quartetto Italiano turned to the past as much as to the present, and their Haydn 1799 Quartet in G Major, Op. 77, No. 1 (rec. 26 February 1951) reveals the ardent attention the classics warrant, especially given Haydn’s repute as the “father” of the string quartet medium.   Haydn wrote the work as part of the Vienna concerts sponsored by Prince Lobkowitz, who himself enjoyed wit in the compositions proffered at these evenings.  The G Major moves brilliantly, Allegro moderato, in which Haydn balances virtuosity and polyphony, allowing Borciani and cellist Rossi friendly banter.  Solemn, dignified, and rhapsodic, the second movement, Adagio, moves in E-flat with the four instruments at first unisono, but the first violin takes precedence.  The sporadic outbursts of emotion point to the sturm und drang element in such period music.  One beat per bar marks the extraordinary vim of the Menuetto – Presto, a scherzo just awaiting Beethoven’s signature. The various syncopations and high tessitura of the writing may point to Haydn’s penchant for Hungarian music. Borciani seizes the moment to display the kind of virtuosity his otherwise placid demeanor belies.  A Croatian round dance likely inspires the wild gypsy Finale: Allegro molto vivace, offering a single theme treated in canon. Haydn separates the texture, dividing violins from the lower instruments, and a march tune, perhaps the kind of “recruiting song” known to the later Bartok, comes into play. This performance sets us bravura en masse!

The three string quartets of Robert Schumann derive from his fertile period of work, 1842-1843, in which the three major chamber works were completed in two weeks.  Schumann scrupulously studied the quartets of former masters – especially those of Beethoven – but his own, Romantic stamp marks his Op. 41 triptych.  Although new wife Clara spent much time away on tour, Robert’s music reveals few clouds and storms. The F Major, Op. 41, No. 2 (rec. 26 February 1951), the first of the three completed, has its realization here from 26 February 1951.  Its opening Allegro vivace remains mono-thematic, the ¾ tune belonging to violin Borciani. The Andante con Variazioni, set in 12/8, moves graciously in A-flat in alternations of quarter and eighth notes that inspire four variants. The virtuosity of the work comes in the 6/8 Scherzo, a dazzlingly quick study in arpeggios, in C minor.  Its Trio section offers some witty parlance in setting the cello against offbeat spiccato eighth notes. The Trio section appears to infiltrate the last movement, Allegro molto vivace, returning to F Major with a tune rather similar to that which informs the last movement of his Spring Symphony.

Schumann said of his Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3 that it remained his personal favorite.  A falling perfect fifth and a sighing figure set off the Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato first movement, a dreamy affair.  The bit of turbulence proves brief, and two main themes emerge.  What Schumann elaborated as “a beautiful and even abstrusely woven texture conversation among four people” becomes by turns agitated and calmed by that two-note falling fifth, the “Clara” motif. Rossi’s cello part becomes artfully airborne, having been accompanied by syncopes in the other parts.  A hesitant theme and four variations constitute the Assai agitato second movement.  The variation played adagio – a love waltzfollows that which had been a quick nod to Bach.  The Adagio molto boldly announces its intention as a hymn to love, so each of the male members of Quartetto Italiano may express his devotion to Ms. Pegreffi. The Finale: Allegro molto vivace proceeds as a jolly round dance, starting on an upbeat and off-kilter almost throughout. Rather sectionalized, this music captures the “wanderer” in Schumann, that same impulse typical of the Romantics, among whom we must count our Quartetto Italiano, especially in this seminal collection from RIAS.

–Gary Lemco


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