Cherubini: String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6

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COMPOSERS: Cherubini
WORKS: String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6
PERFORMER: David Quartet
‘There is an inescapable impression of cold calculation at the very heart of the music’ was Grove’s verdict on Cherubini’s six string quartets. Well, it escaped me. These late works, written when the composer was in his mid-seventies, are thoroughly absorbing, quirkily inventive pieces. There are echoes of Haydn (especially in the graceful yet emotionally ambivalent slow movements) and Beethoven (above all in the truculent scherzo of No. 5), and shades, too, of the flashy French quatuor brillant. But Cherubini has his own distinctive voice: wayward, abstracted, full of abrupt, unintegrated contrasts, strange harmonic feints and tantalising snatches of lyricism that never quite take wing. The sonata-form movements are fascinatingly developed, with immense contrapuntal resource (more than a hint of Mendelssohn in the dancing fugatos in No. 5’s finale). Yet Cherubini is always likely to go off at a whimsical tangent, as in the finale of No. 6, with its juxtapositions of ardour and playfulness and its introduction of the main themes from the first three movements, with odd, parodistic effect. This original, intriguing music by an old man in nonchalant command of his craft receives eloquent advocacy from the David Quartet, with its polished ensemble and ever-alert response to the music’s colourful textures and unpredictable contours. Richard Wigmore