Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti [1880-1968] wrote two sumptuous string quartets. He was a member of the “Generation of 1880” along with Gian Francesco Malipiero (reviewed June 2016) and Ottorino Respighi. They were among the first Italian composers in some time whose primary contributions were not in opera. (Thanks, Wiki).
These are Romantic works. I refer to them as sumptuous because of their texture and orchestral approach. Both of the quartets contain four movements.
String quartet No. 1 is in A major and was written in 1906. The opening is breathtakingly beautiful. It sustains this attractive mood and the composer’s orchestral style really shines through. It is such a full sound! The violins continue with the opening melodies while the cello and viola slip into variations. After a time, there is a hint of a minor tonality but the beauty is untouched. There are orchestral-like crescendos that soon return to the natural dynamic level of the quartet. Minor crescendos come and go but the piece sustains its natural mood for nine minutes. This is a miniature masterpiece!
Movement two is an adagio in a major key, which is a little unusual. The writing is again orchestral-like and the effect is similar to the first movement. It has a long attractive melody that is sustained for two minutes, before it drops into a subtle minor tonality. There is very little variation, but it really doesn’t need it. This is a place for ‘being in’.
The third movement is again slow, and very reflective. Then it jumps into tempo. The melodies are busier here and there is forward movement for the first time in the piece. This movement doesn’t last for long and it returns to a slow tempo with the two violins engaging in conversation. Sometimes it is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Now the tempo picks up again and many new melodies emerge. It then lets you down with a peaceful conclusion.
The final movement is totally out of character, in a nice way. It skips along in a moderate tempo. I love the way Pizzetti subtly shifts from major to minor for a short time, before embracing the major again. The tempo then drops a little, allowing for longer melodies to be presented. The tempo returns, as does the joyous mood. There goes that minor again, but not for long. The violins begin to ask questions, then provide their own answers. Nearing the end, the cello has a voice before the piece goes out with a flourish.
String quartet No. 2 is in D major and was written in 1933. That is quite a gap but it’s not uncommon for composers to leave a considerable time between quartets. I’m not sure what to read into that. Many composers leave a ten year gap between quartets. Others write in consecutive years.
The opening of the first movement signals a completely different approach to No. 1. It is a melancholy piece, very stately and rewarding. What Pizzetti can do in a major key is stunning. He seems to be able to embrace such a wide emotional range. The tempo and strength increase for about three minutes until there is a drop in the dynamics. Gentle melodies follow; we are in a respite. The composer works his way into a more intense section, which is no way chaotic, even though the melodies are flying past at a great rate. Then a dignified melancholia returns. The harmonies are so close it sounds like early music. Nearing the conclusion, a pleasing melody returns to finish.
The next movement is an adagio, a tempo at which Pizzetti excels! More shades of The Lark Ascending. Beautiful! There is a certain element of stasis here; the violin wanders through various moods and yet the ensemble is very soft. This is a very attractive passage. Five minutes have elapsed but it still sounds reminiscent of the opening. It is definitely a movement for the featured solo violin. Finally some tension emerges but it soon reverts to peace. There is a hint of Beethoven here.
The third movement is relatively short. It opens with a pair of violins playing a harmonised line. It then moves into a solid ensemble sound at a tempo. This is very reminiscent of Dvorak (the ultimate influential). There is another quote from Beethoven as well. A key change signals a new melody. Deep in Dvorakian territory, the mood swells in intensity. A brief pause and the swelling begins again. Then we enter a totally new rhythmic and melodic section which takes it to the conclusion.
The final movement is substantial; eleven minutes, I’m looking forward to it! It opens with a forceful flourish and a slightly aggressive melody. This is already the darkest piece on the CD. It settles into a more moderate mood and the violin melody is a lot more conservative, with sweeping lines. It then becomes serious again, this time with swirling violin melodies. That brief minor to major and back again reappears and seems to bring the piece under control. The ensemble bubbles along as the violins intensify again. This morphs into a pastoral section, very pleasant. After a time, a moderately tense section is heard but it fades to a solo violin melody that is searching for something, and it finds it with the help of the ensemble. This is quite poignant and becomes even more longing as the section progresses. We are nearing the end now and it concludes with a flourish. Considering the 27-year gap between the two quartets I would expect a little modernism and that’s what I heard in this movement, a little modernism!
These works were an unexpected pleasure, given that I had not heard of Pizzetti before yesterday. I normally struggle a little discussing Romantic quartets. Often I do not feel the same overtly expressive emotional feeling I glean from modern quartets. Romantic quartets tend to lend themselves more to technical discussions about form and structure rather than emotional content which I find to be quite limited. I’m going to stick to my non-technical style!
These works are available on Amazon US and UK, performed by the Lajtha Quartet. Both are on Naxos and Marco Polo, which is a Naxos subsidiary.
Listenability: Somewhat conservative music. Deep, not intellectually, but emotionally.