What possible connection could these two quartets have, written more than a century apart by two radically different composers? I'll get to that in a minute. According to Verdi, he wrote his charming quartet "without attaching the least importance to it… I don't know whether the quartet is beautiful or ugly…."
The composer needn't have worried. This quartet stirs emotions as deep as any by Brahms or Dvořák. Verdi dramatically states the first theme, suppressing its urgency until the cello's scampering figure releases the tension. Like the interlude between two stormy acts, the Andantino is melancholic, marked to be played con eleganza. Listen to the Prestissimo and you'll have no doubts that an opera composer had to have written it. In its middle section, the cello plays lyrically, like the tenor singing the serenade "Deserto sulla terra" from Il Trovatore, with a pizzicato accompaniment instead of mandolin!
Benjamin Britten's final string quartet was once of his last works and, like Shostakovich's Fifteenth string quartet, contains obvious strains of impending death. There are many quiet corridors winding through this piece: three of the five movements are marked "with moderate movement," "very calm," and "slow." The "very calm" movement three, with its high register first violin leading the way, is most disquieting. Although played adagio, it is as dramatic as the "Burlesque" fourth movement, with its raucous self-parody and danse macabre aura. Ashenbach's "I love you" motif from Britten's opera Death in Venice appears repeatedly in the final slow movement, sometimes distorted, and sometimes barbed with regret.
The Verdi Quartet performs both works superbly, presenting an eminently likeable rendition of the Verdi' however, they particularly shine most brightly through the misty themes of Britten's swan song. So what do these works have in common? They're both quartets from opera composers. The final work is a curious inclusion: Thomas Rabenschlag's eight-minute Paraphrase on Themes from the opera Aïda." As a transcription, it is adequate, but barely touches Beethoven's transcriptions from Mozart's Magic Flute or Liszt's various transcriptions. Hänssler might have capped off this CD with the more delectable I Crisantemi ("Chrysanthemums"), Puccini's only work for string quartet.
Copyright © 2002, Peter Bates