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Inspiring admiration

ROBERT ANDERSON examines Cherubini's quartets

Cherubini first came to London in 1784, composed an opera for the Theatre Royal, and enjoyed friendship with the future George IV. Thirty years later, when he had just completed his First String Quartet, he accepted an invitation from the Philharmonic Society to provide for £200 a 'symphony, an overture, and an Italian Vocal Piece for not less than three voices with complete orchestral accompaniment, to be composed expressly for the Society'.

Cherubini was in England during Napoleon's Elba-Waterloo escapade, and the Symphony in D was performed on 1 May 1815. Known primarily as a composer for stage and church, Cherubini had less success with his instrumental music. In 1829 he wrote a Lento for string quartet that was to become a replacement slow movement for the Philharmonic symphony in its transposed guise as Quartet No 2 in C. Beethoven's admiration for Cherubini's operas was reciprocated by Cherubini's careful study of his younger contemporary's instrumental music. Indeed he is reported to have said, 'If Beethoven had never written a quartet I would write quartets; as it is I cannot.'

In 1838 these two quartets came to Schumann's notice. In the course of his criticism he notes the difficulty a composer must face when tackling an unfamiliar medium, and remarks that Cherubini had come shipwreck over his symphony. In both quartets Schmann found passages that were operatic and overladen. He was immediately enchanted, however, by the Scherzo in No 1, 'with its fanciful Spanish theme'. [Click to listen.] He was no less delighted by the thistledown trio, written in a manner that Mendelssohn was to make so much of his own. [Click to listen.] He likened the finale to a diamond that sparkles brilliantly at every facet. The Second Quartet pleased him less because of its orchestral textures. He felt a double failure was involved: the symphony sounded too much like a quartet, and now the quartet was too symphonic. Such arrangements were an affront to the original inspiration. He felt the opening Allegro had an obvious debt to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, but during the Lento it was the music of Provence that came to mind. As in much Cherubini, there were dry passages, but he relished also the contrapuntal mastery that delighted in canonic ingenuity and cunning interplay of the parts. His conclusion was positive: Cherubini's quartet style needed only understanding to inspire admiration.

Luigi Cherubini - String Quartets, Vol 1 - Quartetto David. Copyright (c) 1999 BISThe Quartetto David was founded in 1994 and has been coached by members of the Amadeus Quartet. Reviews have commented on 'romantic enthusiasm' and 'unending musical vitality'. Perhaps enthusiasm and vitality have sometimes led the team astray, notably in the First Quartet. The quieter passages have the requisite poise and sensitivity, with a pleasant range of tone colours. The 'toujours également' passage in the Larghetto, played raptly without vibrato, is an obvious success, as are the excerpts already heard. More questionable is the harshness that can overtake some of the faster music. The Second Quartet is an improvement. Here the many orchestral tremolos are given a properly robust account, and the symphonic layout of the brisker movements needs a good dose of enthusiastic vitality. Schumann's Provençal theme in the Lento has the requisite lazy warmth. [Click to listen.] The second tune of the finale likewise catches the playful and wayward character of the music. [Click to listen.] Now and again there is some effective pizzicato from the cello and indeed the other instruments. If Cherubini did not authorise this or the headlong accelerando that ends the quartet, perhaps he should have done.


Copyright © Robert Anderson, November 13th 1999


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