ANDRES ISASI – A Late Romantic in the 20th century – SQ No. 4

Andrés Isasi [1890–1940] was a Basque composer who wrote six string quartets. They are numbered 0 through 5. ‘0’ usually indicates that the quartet was discovered later, possibly after his death.  Interestingly, he wrote quartets Nos. 0 & 1 by 1914 and then Nos. 2 through 5 in 1920-1921. No. 3 was never completed. With twenty years still left in him, it’s a wonder he didn’t get around to it.

It’s refreshing to hear a composer still writing Late Romantic  string quartets in the 1920s. Isasi reveals his Spanish influences and there is also a hint of Dvorak in his work. Actually, my gut feeling is that there is a hint of Dvorak in most composers of this era, even Schoenberg. I’ve often pondered that concept. Dvorak had a unique style and, to me, never really sounded like anyone but himself.

Meanwhile, back to Isasi. SQ No. 4 is a four-movement work, written in 1921. The first movement is a sometimes cheerful, sometimes melancholy piece developed around a strong melodic structure. It is not a music of extremes, seeming to take the middle ground; it’s quite conservative. The movement passes through many different moods, although it’s mostly an optimistic work. It finishes with a light rhythmic passage. I find it amazing to think that at this time, Schoenberg was working on his abstract tone rows, just a few countries away.

The second movement, marked romanze is just that, romantic. This is a beautifully poignant piece, played at a gentle tempo with superb intertwining melodies. The cello sets the opening mood before the violins give it a pastoral flavour. The cello then moves into pizzicato and picks up the pace, before slowly transforming to a slow section, which persists until it closes with delicate chords.

The next movement opens with the cello in a folk-like dance mood. Nothing modern about this music; it is rooted in the 19th century. A key change gives way to an introverted section. Then follows a recapitulation of the opening cello theme which continues until it concludes in a sprightly fashion.

The last movement begins with a stately theme before moving into a feisty mood that is sustained right through to the conclusion. Along the journey there are several pauses for breath, but it always picks up again. A most enjoyable experience.

Just a brief note on the unfinished SQ No. 3 which is also on this CD. Of the three movements, two are attractive slow pieces, while the other is more lively. There are also three short pieces for SQ on this disc. The first, an Aria in D major, is exceptional; a very poignant five-minute piece.

These pieces illustrate the fact that Late Romantic quartets were still being written in the early 20th century. Another case of overlapping periods. They are delightful works, well worth investigating.

The CD in question is on Naxos by the Isasi Quartet. SQ Nos. 0, 1, 2 and 5 are on two other Naxos CDs. All three discs are available on Spotify and are all worth investigating.

Several Isasi quartets are available on YouTube.

Listenability: Two delightful pieces, not of their time. Music to be savoured.


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