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Northern and Southern Quartets


CD Review
(Please explore the links in this page, which should open in a separate window. If this article disappears altogether, click 'Back' on your browser to return. The biography of Nielsen is particularly outstanding.)

To describe our world at the close of the 20th century as 'The Age of Change', as we already have 'The Age of the Enlightenment' and other such terms, might seem to lead toward little controversy. Yet all educated listeners know that musical development anticipated this 'Change' by over a hundred years, and such new records as the two discussed here supply potent examples.

For a complete musical novice, a disc containing two String Quartets by Carl Nielsen (1865 - 1931) might be expected to share many similarities with a record of Quartet music by Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924) and Alfredo Catalani (1854 - 1893). Certainly, all three composers were born within the space of thirteen years (the same gap that separates Busoni (page in Italian) and Respighi), but even a cursory first hearing reveals a distinct polarisation of technique and outlook flowing along lines which continue today. What is more, by fortune or design, the performances help to delineate this further; the artistes on these discs enjoy close geographic ties with their respective composers. The Nielsen quartets opp.14 and 44 are performed by the Oslo String Quartet, while the Quartetto Puccini play several small but often gripping works by the Italian composers.

Puccini versus Catalani

The individual qualities of each group of pieces are as worthy of comment as the contrasts in performance, instrumental timbre and recorded sound. To this listener, some of Puccini's juvenelia, in the form of three fugues, a string quartet movement and a scherzo (click here to play the scherzo), show undoubted maturity, though not the style more familiar to audiences today. Little information exists about the three fugues (were they exercises?); their provenance is neither Bach nor Mendelssohn, but both show a clear Italian post-Classical genesis, and their place at the start of the disc of Italian quartet music is a masterly stroke of programming. The well-known Crisantemi, heard most famously in Manon Lescaut, holds its own emotional tenderness well in its original string-quartet version which dates from 1890, three years before the opera. Three more seeds for Manon Lescaut, the minuets composed in 1892, are included in their first incarnations too. It is important to hear these pieces (especially the Quartet movement in D, composed between the ages of 22 and 25) for the light they shine on the early stages of Puccini's career, when he was no doubt strongly aware of the four generations of professional musicians that preceded him. Click here to listen to part of the Quartet.

Perhaps even more revealing of the Italian musical nature at the end of the 19th century are the rarely-heard pieces by Catalani, again, a composer better-known for operas such as La Wally (1891-2). The two composers were linked, though not favourably, in several ways, for Catalani shared publishers with Puccini. Ricordi neglected, for at least two years, one of the less-famous composer's operas while busy promoting Puccini's career, and Catalani was prompted to describe himself as Puccini's 'understudy' in Ricordi's catalogue. Verdi showed ambivalence; during his life, the younger composer was dismissed as a 'maestrino', and only after his death could the elder label him 'an excellent musician'.

Of the works on the disc, two are occasional pieces, being his own quartet arrangements of earlier piano works; his Serenatella which combines simplicity with reminiscence of a brightly-lit ballroom (click to hear part of this), and the melancholic A Sera which, like so much Italian instrumental music, found its way into operatic score, this time as the prelude to the last act of La Wally. However, the more serious String Quartet in A unfortunately lacks character in its first movement; the lyrical second-subject fails to inject the interest so badly needed after the promise of the work's first four bars. Flavours of the staged emotion so necessary in opera are strongest in the gently mournful second movement (click here to listen), but the freshness of the scherzo does not balance its rigid nature, nor does the Haydnesque signature of the finale serve to mark the movement with greatness.

Having said that, the sound of the Quartetto Puccini might concentrate a listener's mind on matters other than the shortcomings of these works. The players, whose biographies show consistent employment in both their ensemble and other work, are accurate in intonation, and seem particularly to enjoy their instruments which are all, with the exception of the Hill viola, Italian-made. The instruments and recording give a warmth to this disc which I recommend to both the keeper of a wide-ranging record collection wishing to explore the small field of Romantic Italian instrumental music, and to a listener seeking pleasant diversion. However, it also shows that a composer's fame does not lead invariably to each of his works being a great masterpiece rather than merely competent and free from error.

Carl Nielsen,
String Quartets, Vol. 1 (E flat major, Op.14; F major, Op. 44)
The Oslo String Quartet
Producer: Krzysztof Drab
Total time: 57.01
Naxos 8.553907


Giacomo Puccini and Alfredo Catalani,
Music for String Quartet (Puccini: early works, three minuets, Crisantemi; Catalani: two occasional pieces, String Quartet in A)
Quartetto Puccini
Producer: uncredited; Engineer: Mike Cox (Floating Earth)
Total time: 73.23


 Copyright © John Hayward-Warburton, May 5th 1999

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