CD Review by Robert McColley
VERDI Quartet in e. PUCCINI Crisantemi. 3 Fugues. Scherzo. 3 Minuets. Tempo di Quartetto • Quartetto David • BIS CD-1006 (55:22)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) was fifty-nine years old when he composed this String Quartet, his only contribution to the genre of chamber music. Understandably overshadowed by his grand operas, the work, far too good to be ignored, has certainly been underrated—at first by Verdi himself. He broadcast the partial truth that he dashed it off in April 1873 to fill spare time in Naples, while helping plan a production of Aida. After Aida, Verdi would mostly attend to personal affairs for the last third of his life, creating no further operas until coaxed back to musical theater with Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). But more was on his mind in 1873 than proving his ability to write a classical string quartet. On May 22, the venerable writer Allesandro Manzoni died, and Verdi immediately made arrangements to complete and perform his Requiem Mass.
The Quartet in E Minor is, in fact, a masterpiece. Its first movement follows sonata form as perfected by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but with continuous ingenuity in scoring and a propulsive energy entirely characteristic of Verdi himself. The modestly named Andantino starts out as a droopy quasi-minuet with a stutter in the second beat, but this ugly duckling turns into a lovely swan of a melody as Verdi develops it in unexpected directions, interrupts it with a menacing episode, then brings it back still more poignantly to conclude the movement. The three-minute Scherzo is a model of conciseness, contrasting the prestissimo scherzo proper with a brief and lovely cello melody. The finale is a fast, ingenious, and witty fugue.
The Verdi Quartet is the most important piece on this disc, but more than half of it is filled by Giacomo Puccini’s music for string quartet. Some of these pieces are student works, but none the worse for that. The latest are the Three Minuets (1892), and the most famous is Crisantemi for string quartet, composed in 1890. It has often been performed and recorded by string orchestras. Some deem it too sentimental; such people are not likely to appreciate Puccini’s operas either. It is useless to debate differences of taste, but one should note that Puccini is often most subtle and original when his effects seem most immediate and simple: Crisantemi can be appreciated for its ingenious construction as well as for the warm glow it induces in Puccini buffs.
Formed in 1994, Quartetto David is composed of four Italians: Mauro Loguercio and Gabriele Baffero, violins; Antonio Leogreddi, viola; and Marco Decimo, cello. In March 2001, they found themselves in “Länna church in Sweden, some 50 miles north-west of Stockholm.” There they created the spirited performances we hear on this fine disc from Sweden’s Bis Records. I have had the pleasure of hearing and reviewing several recommendable recordings of the Verdi Quartet over the years—most recently the Melos Quartet’s for French Harmonia Mundi, with the remarkable “Intimate Voices” Quartet of Sibelius— but all of them have quite different couplings. For overall performance and total program, this now becomes my first recommendation. Signor Loguercio’s program notes alone are almost worth the cost of the disc.