Cherubini: String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4

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COMPOSERS: Cherubini
LABELS: CPO
WORKS: String Quartet No. 3; String Quartet No. 4
PERFORMER: Hausmusik London
CATALOGUE NO: 999 465-2
Composed near the end of Cherubini’s life, when he had long abandoned the operatic stage, these quartets are fascinating, waywardly individual pieces. Half-echoes of Haydn and Beethoven rub shoulders with the showy quatuor brillant and the rhetorical pathos of French grand opera. But the voice is unmistakably Cherubini’s own: quizzical, abstracted, elliptical, the old composer playing nonchalantly with his materials. Often the music has a casual, almost improvisatory feel, with its disjointed phrases (Cherubini’s use of silence is not so much witty or dramatic as plain odd) and abrupt, apparently unintegrated contrasts. Both first movements, especially, are liable to go off at a tangent at any moment; the Larghetto of No. 4, characteristically, juxtaposes passages of weird harmonic obfuscation with an almost parodistically banal operatic cantilena, while both so-called scherzos ironically subvert their titles: that in No. 3 is a dour, severely contrapuntal minuet, while the one in No. 4, after an initial theatrical flourish, begins as a grave hymn (shades here of the ‘scherzo’ in Haydn’s Bird Quartet, Op. 33/3) and continues with a series of brashly contrasted variations. Though the players’ tone and manner can be a shade abrasive, Hausmusik has the measure of these quirkily original works, playing with a wide spectrum of colour and dynamics (crucial in this music) and enhancing Cherubini’s often spare, fastidious textures with its restrained use of vibrato. Richard Wigmore

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