PIETRO NARDINI – Superb Classical Quartets

Italian Classical composer Pietro Nardini [1722–1793] wrote six works for a string quartet ensemble. I realise that these compositions are pre-1800, but I was just so taken by them, and I believe they deserve to be heard. Secondly, the early works are not strictly string quartets, but follow the divertimento style which I previously discussed with regard to Joseph Haydn here. Essentially a divertimento, for my purposes, is a composition performed by a string quartet ensemble where the first violin plays the melodic lines. However the other three instruments play a harmonic accompaniment using different notes but with the same rhythmic phrasing. By the time of his later quartets, there is evidence of individual lines from the second violin, viola and cello – that is, a bona fide string quartet

It appears that Nardini wrote his first work in this style around 1767 – and they all contain mostly two, but sometimes three movements. For what it’s worth, I listened to all six quartets through headphones – it gave me a great perspective on the minutiae of the ensemble voicings that wasn’t so obvious through speakers.

The First Quartet begins with an allegro movement, which immediately captures my attention with a marvellous melody. There is a sense of the Baroque in these wonderful, smooth lines and an accompaniment that sometimes evokes Vivaldi. The music is very pure and a feature of the ensemble’s playing is the musical unity of their lines. A recapitulation of the opening melody is heard, together with some variations. The second violin tends to mimic the first in its lines at times, before retreating to the ensemble. A new passage develops great emotional feeling, all the while the violin expresses swift, dancing melodies over strong rhythmic phrasing. The end is sweet.

The second, and final movement is marked comodo (a directive to perform a composition or a section in a comfortable manner, typically referring to tempo). And so it is, not slow but very stately and relaxed. At this tempo the interplay between sections is very revealing – it is a beautiful moment. A repeated phrase moves the music into a different emotional atmosphere, all the while retaining the stately nature. Sensitive, ornamental ensemble flourishes make for a fine sound as they push the movement forward. A pause allows for a new passage, again stately as a melody is repeated, then played in half-time. The feeling is slightly melancholy but not morose, still retaining a positive tone. To be honest, I never imagined a Classical quartet could sound so delightful. The conclusion is very calm.

The Fifth Quartet, again in two movements, is marked allegro and also evokes Vivaldi for me as it moves through a set of Baroque harmonies. The violins simply sing as they flutter in their high registers. A series of virtuosic phrases is most satisfying, and the cello, liberated from the ensemble, makes its own musical statements in a forthright manner. The interplay is stunning as melodic lines constantly relate to each other, producing great feeling. There is some tension here but it is 18th century tension and rather wonderful. Nearing the end, a series of violin duet flourishes finish on a sonorous chord.

The final movement, marked andantelegato, is a delightful piece of writing. Only marginally slower than the previous movement, the feeling is completely different as the melodies are phrased to gently waft forward. The main melody is shadowed by the other violin, repeating its every turn to great effect. A new passage brings a warmer tone, with the trilling of violins being a feature of the phrasing. A change in harmony ushers in a more pleading melodic line, which reaches skywards and eventually dissolves, before moving into a more propulsive passage. This doesn’t last and the final throes are filled with much beauty.

I don’t tend to listen to many Classical quartets and I purchased this CD on impulse, just to make up for the postage on an order – there was just something about the look of the packaging. I couldn’t be more pleased.

The review CD, titled Nardini: Complete String Quartets, is performed by Quartetto Eleusi on Brilliant Classics and is available from Amazon US and UK. It is very reasonably priced on Amazon US.

One last observation. The liner notes reveal the quartet studied historical bowing techniques prior to this recording, and it shows. These are sublime performances.

The CD is on Spotify and all six quartets can be found on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Brilliant life-enhancing music.


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