GIUSEPPE VERDI – From Opera to String Quartet

Italian Late Romantic composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi [1813–1901] wrote one string quartet. Mostly known for his operas, the quartet was composed when Verdi was 60. I found a quirky quote from the composer on Wikipedia:

I’ve written a Quartet in my leisure moments in Naples. I had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it and without inviting anyone in particular. Only the seven or eight persons who usually come to visit me were present. I don’t know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it’s a Quartet!

And so it is.

This work, in four movements, opens in a gentle, romantic nature with all instruments engaging in a conversation. A move into a tempo doesn’t stop this, in fact the cello asserts itself and the dialogue is strengthened. A descending violin line leads into a period of some gaiety. Now the intensity decreases, it’s almost serene. A change in tonality from major to minor doesn’t last and the vigour returns, the two violins being particularly incisive. Several flourishes lead to a gentle, lilting section, which is somewhat pastoral in nature. Two violins are the prominent voices here, and they produce a rambling duet, with a dance like mood created. The return of the minor tonality evokes a modal sound, but as the ensemble slowly engages, harmonies reappear. The violins are magnificent here as the cello moves into a stirring rhythm. A cello led section, with a soothing tone reveals an alluring accompaniment. Ascending harmonies build tension, which is slowly released, revealing a reserved passage. The end is a series of flourishes, varying in dynamics before a final thrust.

A leisurely stroll along the promenade is suggested by the introduction to the next movement. This sounds very Italian to me, you can almost smell the cappuccino – yes, they were around in Italy at the time. This mood is continued, although some melodic development occurs. Slightly lamenting violins appear, creating a feeling of great beauty, as they meander through expressive harmonies. A series of stately violin and cello lines is marvellous, but now the energy returns and the promenade is long gone. Frantic lines and the resultant optimism are refreshing. The viola makes an appearance, accompanied by pizzicato cello and we are back on the promenade – it’s a Sunday afternoon. Strong, slow, lyrical harmonised lines move into a succession of cello notes to finish.

The third movement, marked prestissimo (very fast) is a romp with daring changes in dynamics as the texture goes from one quiet violin, albeit energised, to the whole ensemble, again, with vigour. Virtuoso solo violin lines are joined by the ensemble. The sheer joy soon gives way to a uniquely Italian atmosphere – think olive oil, grapes and wine. A simple pentatonic melody, accompanied by a pizzicato leads to a relaxed mood, with the prestissimo of the opening gone. Having said that, it comes back with a vengeance. Stirring melodies, with strong accompaniment conveys a frenetic feeling, even though it is not particularly dynamic. The tenor rises and a virtuosic solo violin line takes the ensemble into a dance-like section before several brash flourishes end the movement.

The finale, marked scherzo fuga is the fastest string quartet fugue I believe I have heard – it positively races. As is the usual case, I am soon lost in a constant stream of contrapuntal (counterpoint) expression. At this tempo the melodic lines overlap and the feeling of fugue recedes. Not the tempo however, it continues at a rapid pace. The appearance of a sustained violin note is unusual, but it brings the ensemble to heel and there is a contrasting sustain with occasional interjections. Now the fugal frenzy returns before several strong rhythmic motifs change the texture again into a cello-led fluid phase. The ensemble, though still busy, drops in intensity and proceeds to rebuild with melodious interjections from the violins. Ascending phrases are powerful and with the end in sight, an extended, frenetic section leads to a marvellous conclusion.

My review source was from a concert by the Juilliard String Quartet, recorded at the Juilliard School of Music on the 22nd of October, 1954. There is an amazing website featuring at least 60 quartet works recorded by the Juilliards during their time as artists in residence here. I listened to their Ravel yesterday and the third movement was transcending – it was as though I had never heard it before.

Although they also recorded the Verdi commercially, it is a little difficult to find. I would recommend the version by the Delme String Quartet on the Hyperion label, where it is paired with the one string quartet of Richard Strauss. Amazon UK reported 72 recordings of the piece.

There are several versions on Spotify, and also many on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Charming, melodic Late Romantic work.


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