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ECM cover [Eighteenth-Century Music, Vol. 3, Issue 2, September 2006, pp. 348–350: Review by Simon McVeigh of The Early String Quartet, Vol. 1, Giovanni Battista Viotti, Six String Quartets, Op. 1. Reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Press, © Cambridge University Press, 2006.]

The Early String Quartet, volume 1
Ann Arbor: Steglein, 2003
pp. xvi + 124, ISBN 0 9719854 0 5

This admirable new series is devoted to string quartets composed during the period c1760 to 1830, with a deliberately wide geographical catchment area that includes outlying European centres as well as the Americas. Quartet parts accompany the scores, and the series is clearly aimed as much at the adventurous performer as at the scholar. This first volume, edited by the general editor of the series, provides a welcome opportunity to assess the contribution of Giovanni Battista Viotti, the Italian violinist known today almost exclusively for his full-scale Paris and London violin concertos (alongside his rather less ambitious violin duos). Viotti's string quartet output is unfortunately restricted to three very late works and two early sets, both published shortly after his sensational debut at the Concert Spirituel (17 March 1782) and thus contemporary with the earliest of his concertos.

As the editor suggests, the Op.1 set is in many ways typical of the Parisian quatuor concertant of the 1780s: it represents neither the first-violin-dominated quatuor brillant nor the Viennese classical debate of Haydn and Mozart. Most of these quartets have the customary succession of solos for each instrument in turn, with the second violin often expected to mirror the virtuosity of the first. Yet this is a classification that demands a more rounded consideration, since as with other quartet sets of the decade (such as those of Pleyel) some of the six have only very limited solo writing for the viola and cello. This is surely a significant distinction, not only for the composition itself, but also for players selecting their repertoire. Where there are cello solos, for example, they are high and quite demanding (the slow movement of No. 5 contains a lovely cello cantilena), but in some movements the cello line is essentially a basso part that could even be played by keyboard.

The immediate impression is of melodic fecundity, often on an expansive scale as material is repeated across different instruments. Generally the tone is relaxed, even leisurely: sometimes this produces a rather diffuse impression, with a tendency towards over-sectionalized structures linking a succession of separate four-bar phrases. But elsewhere Viotti uses the expectation of instrumental rotation more subtly so as to go against these norms, as in the first cello solo in No. 5/i, where instead of handing over to the anticipated second violin the cello turns in a different direction with an expressive minore variant.

Viotti is also clearly keen to experiment with unusual and striking textures, delighting in the exploration of varied doubling patterns, and a rich Mozartean sonority frequently arises from doubling at the octave and third together (indeed this texture is often used in Mozart's own quatuors concertants, the three 'Prussian' quartets). The broad pacing of Viotti's appealing Italianate melody often allows space in the accompaniment for quite intricate rhythmic figurations and triplet patterns, as well as the sotto voce rococo ornamentation of the second variation of No. 2/ii. By contrast, most of the rondo themes are highly whimsical in character—whether the fragmentary mock bravura of No. 5, hardly a tune at all, or the scherzando No. 3, with its catchily independent inner parts.

Although these quartets by no means inhabit the deeply expressive world of the later violin concertos, there is a boldness of manner here that belies the normal easy-going charm of the quatuor concertant. Much of the music suggests an operatic character, sometimes buffo in origin, but at other times more serious in its rhetorical gestures. No. 3, for example, begins with an operatic scena featuring an adagio call to attention, an andante aria and a recall of the opening, all serving as an introduction to the Allegro proper. Elsewhere there is more than a hint of the concerto. The very first quartet opens with an arresting orchestral assertion, such that when the second violin takes its solo turn—leading a commanding version of the opening idea towards the dominant—the effect is strongly reminiscent of the solo entry after an orchestral ritornello. Viotti indeed uses quartet solos not only to articulate structural markers in the usual rotational way, but also (in a more active manner) to carry the argument forward, as, for example, in the unexpected interposition of a plaintive minore episode in the second subject area by the viola in No. 3/i, or by the second violin in No. 6/i.

Bold harmonic dislocations add to the dramatic thrust of many of the development sections. Thus in No. 4/i in B flat major a pianissimo F major at the double bar is immediately dismissed by an A flat major version of the brusque opening chords: further dislocations follow as the tonal scheme descends by thirds through F minor, D flat major and B flat minor. This sense of tonal expansiveness is one of the most striking characteristics of this otherwise elegantly turned, melodic music. Indeed, such third relationships—a penchant throughout Viotti's career—are found elsewhere, with both No. 3/i and No. 6/i arriving similarly at the flat mediant in the development section.

Formally, too, there are moments of real individuality: an avoidance of the routine, with (as Eisen remarks (viii)) varied reprises, reworkings and transformations of material. Thus in No. 5/i the recapitulation is altered not merely in the casual way of previous decades, but rather as a clearly intended transformatory gesture. Ingenuity is also to be found in the finales (generally the second of two movements), where Viotti seems at pains to avoid the predictable. Even in the variation set of No. 2 the first variation is minore; other finales are nominally rondos, but Viotti avoids the simple pattern of rondo repetitions surrounding solo episodes so characteristic of this genre. In No. 1 in A major the second episode begins conventionally enough in the subdominant, but at the moment of expected return a disruptive cello gradually interposes a more soloistic presence, which is eventually rewarded with a full solo in C major. Still more arresting is the finale of No. 4 in B flat major, where a pastoral Andantino resolves into the main Allegretto, extraordinarily starting in the subdominant, E flat major, as if the pastorale had been merely an introduction. But of course a tonic return is inevitable: this is eventually achieved by a reiteration of the pastorale in the tonic, but transformed into the tempo of the Allegretto. Such sophisticated transformations and paradoxical juxtapositions foreshadow the mature classical idiom that Viotti was to explore in his later violin concertos.

The edition is based on two contemporary prints, published by Sieber in Paris and Götz in Mannheim, both apparently derived from a common source but in some respects independent. This results in some discrepancies and inconsistencies, though readings in the Sieber print are naturally given precedence. Editorial interventions are made with pragmatic musicianship: on the whole interference is kept to a minimum, as is certainly preferred by specialist period-instrument groups. This to some extent reflects the nicely expressed aims given in the Series Preface, which stresses that 'the act of performance is often—if not always—an extension of the creative act'; the scores and parts 'reflect not only modern concerns for historical awareness but also the obligation on players to create individual interpretations, whether historically informed or not' (vi).

Inconsistencies certainly remain in the score, in terms of dynamics, phrasings and even rhythms in simultaneous or parallel passages; but these very inconsistencies may sometimes guide or inspire performers. Thus in the opening movement one oft-repeated phrase (bar 11) is sometimes spelled as crotchet, crotchet rest, minim, and sometimes as two minims. For the performer this suggests a first note that is long yet still separated, intensely lifted, an effect best realized with two downbows. (Neither notation alone suggests all of these aspects, but the two together do.) In other places, though, the inconsistencies of detail will need to be addressed, and one wonders whether players inexperienced in such repertoire might have welcomed a little more intervention or direction. Occasionally the notes themselves are open to question: the E rather than D in the cello part in No. 1/ii (bar 167) is presumably a slip of the mouse or the engraving tool, but the grace notes in the cello in No. 5/i (bars 26–28) seem to be simply one note too low. Later in the same movement, the ad libitum marking in the cello part at bar 98 is presumably an 'octave higher' indication—a necessity if this is to make any musical sense at all.

The score is handsomely presented and it is a relief to find the critical report so generously laid out with notated rhythms rather than their more economical text equivalents. Dynamic markings in the report are given in the traditional, elegant italic font, whereas in the score itself they have an upright stance, which appears clean but rather clinical by comparison. The original sources maintain some distinction between the lengths of appoggiaturas: whether those notated here as acciaccaturas are in reality semiquavers is unclear (surely they must often be realized as such).

There is plenty here to interest today's amateur and professional quartet players, both in the shifting textures and in the individual parts. Certainly there are taxing moments for all four instrumentalists, notably in the perverse slurrings of the so-called 'Viotti bowing' and in the plethora of trills that periodically burst out across the score. At the same time these remain highly approachable works, which will undoubtedly give pleasure to players looking for agreeable classical quartets with a certain quirky individuality.

Simon McVeigh

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