Italian Late Romantic composer Don Roffredo Caetani [1871-1961] wrote two string quartets. Coming from a very famous family, his ancestor Benedetto Caetani was elected to the papacy as Pope Boniface VIII in 1294. Roffredo was the last male member of the family.
The Second Quartet opens with a strong minor chord, reminiscent of Haydn’s Seven Last Words. The feeling is orchestral-like with rich harmonies supporting expressive violin statements. A mellowing of the mood ensues, before constantly gaining in strength, becoming almost rhapsodic. The violins rise above the ensemble, creating a wonderful, full sound. Now a change comes over the piece, with a moderate pastoral feeling, leading to a very engaging passage, replete with sparse, but powerful violin melodic lines. This rubato passage moves into a tempo for a time and the violins reach out with dramatic trills as the energy level constantly rises and falls. An extended slow passage reveals a sense of beauty before it regathers energy and moves into another powerful section. The final throes of the movement progress from the sublime to the intense, which drops back to a gentle violin conclusion. This whole movement is dominated by a strong minor tonality.
The next movement, marked Molto lento (very slowly), opens in a sublime, understated manner as haunting violin lines press forward gently, which evokes for me, a feeling of being in a church. A sombre pulse is present and the violin continues in this manner for some time. A slight crescendo leads to a short solo second violin line, which is harmonised by the first violin as they work together to craft a stunning mood. A cello line now becomes involved and its resonant tones are truly wonderful. Simple, but extremely moving violin lines move into a brief rhythmic passage where the violins investigate a motif. Now a further change features an arresting violin dialogue that carries the music forward in a way that would not be out of place in a late Beethoven quartet, particularly No. 12. This whole movement has great antecedents in string quartet history. The end comes with a long cello tone.
The final movement hints at the first movement, very minor, but this time with a vibrant tempo. The forward movement is controlled but strong and a return to the opening fanfare develops into a rhapsodic section of gypsy-like solo violin soaring over the ensemble. Now the cello has a melodic role before the violins return with a new feeling of measured melodic development, as they intertwine to great effect – this is a positive passage which again, I believe looks back to Bach and Vivaldi as the harmonies seem to flow in a Baroque manner. A rubato section emerges briefly, but the energetic Baroque feeling is soon resumed. A few solo cello notes invoke another new lamenting passage and the conclusion comes quickly, with a flourish.
Broadly, this music, written in the twentieth century, looks backward with a rather unique approach to a string quartet – sometimes orchestral, with a touch of Bach, Beethoven and Vivaldi – it is a fine work.
The review CD, Caetani: The Two String Quartets, performed by the Alauda Quartet, is available on Amazon US and UK, at a surprisingly reasonable price.
Listenability: Unusually, a very modern Late Romantic quartet.