WORKS: Quartet in E minor; Quartet No. 1 in E flat; La Oracion del Torero
PERFORMER: Britten Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 12672 DDD
While in Naples in 1873, waiting for rehearsals of Aida to get under way (the leading soprano was ill), Verdi remained closeted in his hotel room, clandestinely composing his only significant non-vocal work as a means of passing the time. For several years he refused to sanction any performances of his string quartet, curiously regarding the writing of such a piece as a rather unpatriotic activity for an Italian composer. There’s no doubt, though, that Verdi knew the great works of the Austro-German literature – his finale is a transparently textured fugue that looks fondly back to Haydn’s quartets Op. 20, while at the same time anticipating the closing scene of his own comic masterpiece, Falstaff.
Unfortunately, these new recordings are far from ideal. Both suffer from an unpleasantly close balance, and the opening bars in the Britten Quartet’s performance lack mystery. They also take the finale at a dangerously fast speed, leaving no room for delicacy of touch. The Juilliard’s finale is preferable, though their scherzo sounds tired rather than brilliant, and the cello does not sing eloquently enough in the trio.
For their main companion-piece the Britten Quartet opts for Cherubini’s justly neglected first quartet. Its scherzo has a fleeting, transparently textured trio that may well have influenced Mendelssohn; but it is a work that needs a good deal more help than it gets in this rather strait-laced performance. The slow movement is particularly stiff, and four bars have inadvertently been lopped from its ending. Sibelius’s melancholy Voces intimae, his only mature quartet, provides a more rewarding coupling on the Juilliard’s disc -a decent performance, though lacking in warmth. Misha Donat