JUAN de ARRIAGA – The Spanish Mozart

Spanish Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga  Balzola [1806-1826] wrote three string quartets. Dead before his 20th birthday, he was dubbed ‘The Spanish Mozart’ due to his prodigious talent. They also shared the same birthday, January 27th. I have long enjoyed the energy of his works and I am going to discuss the third quartet. Set firmly in the Classical style, this work is in four movements and is characterised by many instances of theme and variations.

The first movement opens with a lilting melody, which is both light and airy. There is a slight Spanish tinge to this opening and another terrific melody emerges. Both melodies are developed further and a  change in tonality initiates a third melodic section. All of these passages are performed with a solid tempo. The composer now returns to the opening theme and there are several fine flourishes. A minor key section follows; very appealing. As the end approaches we have some wonderful descending patterns before it ends with an uplifting flourish.

The next movement begins with a chordal section, before the violins dialogue over a sustained chord. This is played out at a stately tempo, with the cello being prominent. A tonal change leads to a most alluring passage with shimmering violins and a measured violin melody. This leads into a section reminiscent of a ferris wheel as melodies follow each other around. A change from major to minor brings a sense of intensity to the music. The violins and cello are both passionate. The intensity rises up a notch before a solo cello brings some serenity to the proceedings and the composer develops some marvellously attractive melodies. This sparsity is just beautiful and the violins lead to a quiet conclusion.

The third movement has a stronger Spanish flavour and the cello propels the music forward while the violins emote a feeling of anguish. This is followed by a recapitulation before a waltz time is introduced, with the violin sounding folk-like. Then there is a sweeping passage as the cello and violins dance with joy. A brief dialogue between the violin and cello ensues and the movement comes to a muted end.

The final movement opens with a positive, lively melodic section. After a few flourishes the violin reaches into the upper register and softens the mood. There is a sense of longing in this section. Now the opening is repeated and a positive mood is again achieved. The next section features the cello playing only on the second and fourth beats, leading to a folk-like rhythm. This is soon left behind as the violin drives the music forward, with a strong cello accompaniment. This is a most beautiful melody, which is tempered, but still remains very attractive. A repeat of a previous section occurs; the violin interplay is stunning as both violins reach for the sky. The work ends on a series of strong chords.

Arriaga died ten days before his twentieth birthday, apparently of a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis. Many of his works have been lost but at least we are left with these three fine string quartets.

They are freely available on CD at Amazon US and UK. There appear to be at least ten versions. I’ve enjoyed Camerata Boccherini on the Naxos label and Quartet Sine Nomine on Claves Records. There are several versions on Spotify and all quartets are on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Brilliant Late Classical quartets.


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