|[Early Music, Vol 33, May 2005: Review by Duncan Druce of The Early String Quartet, Vols. 1–3 and Johann Joachim Quantz, Six Flute Quartets. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press, © Oxford University Press, 2005.]|
Giovanni Battista Viotti, Six quartets, op. 1, ed. Cliff Eisen, The Early String Quartet, i (Ann Arbor: Steglein, 2003), score and parts $80
Luigi Boccherini, Six Quartets, op. 32, ed. Mark W. Knoll, The Early String Quartet, ii (Ann Arbor: Steglein, 2003), score and parts $80
Adalbert Gyrowetz, Three Quartets op. 44, ed. W. Dean Sutcliffe, The Early String Quartet, iii (Ann Arbor: Steglein, 2004), score and parts $80
Johann Joachim Quantz, Six Quartets for flute, violin, viola and basso continuo, ed. Mary Oleskiewicz (Ann Arbor: Steglein, 2004), score and parts $60
It is a paradox that the Classical period in music is one of the most familiar and yet one of the least known. The well-loved masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven continue to dominate concert programmes and record catalogues, while the many other composers whose music was enjoyed by audiences at the end of the 18th century are left in the shade. We can contrast this with the much greater number and geographical spread of well-known Romantic composers, and, since the Baroque revival, of those of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Why should this be? Is it that E. T. A. Hoffmann's famous singling out of the three great Viennese had an undue influence? Was it because their music (some of it, at least) has been in the general repertory ever since, while their contemporaries' fell out of fashion? Or, was there really, for some mysterious reason, a greater gap at this period between the best and the next-best? W. Dean Sutcliffe, in his introduction to the Adalbert Gyrowetz volume presently under review, addresses this issue, lamenting that 'the lack of sustained engagement—musicological and especially critical—with other composers of the later 18th century remains a central feature in our treatment of the music of this time.' In recent years, however, things have begun to change, with the issue of recordings of the music of many 'lesser' figures of the late 1700s, as well as publication series devoted to symphonies and operas of the period. A series devoted to the early string quartet is especially welcome, for the years after 1760 can be seen as the heyday of the form, the time when it progressed from just one kind of domestic music to the eminent position it has held ever since 1800.
Of the composers represented in the first three volumes, Luigi Boccherini has the greatest reputation. This was true in the 18th century and remains so today; a considerable number of his quartets and other chamber works were republished during the 20th century, though mostly in very impure editions. But he can hardly be said to have regained the position as a major composer that he enjoyed in his lifetime. These op. 32 quartets, however, written in 1780, are all beautiful works, with highly refined instrumental writing and unpredictable, imaginative formal structures. Four of the six have the usual four movements (the other two lack a minuet), but two of these start not with an Allegro but with a piece in a slower tempo, and three of the centrally placed slower movements lead straight into the minuet or finale that follows. The Second Quartet's brief Largo is played twice, once in place of a trio to the minuet, and then as a bridge between the minuet and finale. No. 4 in C major boasts an elaborate concertante cello part and opens with an Allegro bizzaro; the adjective seems to denote not any groteque expression but the extravagance of the instrumental writing. Other high points are the lively opening movement of no. 3, with its tiptoe, soft start and minimal harmonization, and the lovely Andantino lentarello in no. 6, featuring a pervasive chromatic descent. These quartets were first published in Vienna in 1782; is it fanciful, I wonder, to see echoes of them in the music Mozart wrote around this time? The C minor minuet in no. 5, with its imitative counterpoint, is reminiscent of the minuet in the K388 wind serenade, and the upward arpeggio figure in the G major Quartet's minuet K387, passed between instruments, is very similar to a passage in the minuet of Boccherini's op. 32 no. 6.
Giovanni Battista Viotti's name appears in every history of violin playing as a pivotal figure, and his concertos certainly provided a model for 19th-century violinist-composers from Pierre Rode to Henryk Wieniawski. As a composer of quartets, however, he remains virtually unknown. The op. 1 set dates from the period of his sudden rise to celebrity in Paris in the early 1780s. All six quartets are major-key works (so there is none of the noble pathos that is a striking feature of his minor-key concertos), and five of them have only two movements. But these are not small-scale pieces; the forms of the first-movement Allegros and Rondo finales are bold and expansive. Viotti's idiom is quite straightforward and conventional, but his melodies have an attractive freshness, and there is an awareness of formal balance that allows him to be very free about recapitulation—he is not one of those 18th-century composers who become more and more predictable as they near the end of a movement. The string writing is beautifully idiomatic and effective, of course, but these—unlike some quartets by Rode and Louis Spohr—are not showpiece works for a virtuoso violinist; instead the principal thematic material is shared out among the four instruments in a very varied way. There are several original features: the aria-like Andante, which, after a four-bar introduction, begins no. 3, only to give way, 30 bars later, to the 'proper' Allegro first movement; and the second movement of no. 4, an unusual bipartite piece whose opening theme is metrically transformed when it returns near the end. What may prevent a truly enthusiastic assessment of Viotti's quartets is his very plain harmony. This might not have seemed a weakness to his 18th-century public in the way that it does to modern ears, and we can accept it as an essential part of his style in those movements where he includes a few surprise chords and modulations. But in the finale of no. 3, for example, the tonic-dominant alterations do begin to grow wearisome.
The Gyrowetz quartets are very different from the other two sets. Between the 1780s and the 1800s the string quartet had become much more expansive in scope, and adventurous in harmonic language. Gyrowetz was, of course, a representative of the Viennese tradition of instrumental music, and the witty repartee, dramatic modulations, colorful harmonic progressions and unusual phrase-lengths, familiar to us from Haydn's music, come together to form a style that consciously seeks to grab and hold our attention. In Haydn and early Beethoven these features have a poetic quality; by comparison, Gyrowetz's quirks generally remain on the level of playful entertainment. These are his last quartets, however, and by 1804 he had become quite an ambitious composer; the first movement of op. 44 no. 2 is a powerful, sophisticated sonata structure, and the Adagio of no. 3 opens up some genuinely romantic vistas through an elaborate pattern of interrupted cadences and harmonic sidesteps. As with Viotti, Gyrowetz shows an Achilles heel: in his case the part-writing is only so-so (not for nothing did Mozart, as a composition teacher, insist on a mastery of Fuxian counterpoint). The violin countermelody at bar 19 of the Second Quartet's Adagio is a case in point; its consecutive octaves and awkward dissonances with the melody mar what should be a beautiful effect.
Steglein has produced these volumes in fine style, each one with a series preface, biography of the composer and introduction to his quartets, as well as details of editorial procedure and a critical report. W. Dean Sutcliffe's introduction to the Gyrowetz volume is especially illuminating, with its detailed discussion of editorial and performance questions. There are a few editorial decisions with which one might argue (the three upbeats after the double bar at bar 86 of the sixth Viotti quartet are surely not intended as a triplet) but everything is clearly explained, so that performers can make up their own minds. The parts are nicely printed, and are in many ways laid out so as to be easy to use. In the Boccherini there even are pages printed twice to enable repeats to be taken. But in all three volumes there are movements that can only be performed continuously by means of extra, photocopied pages. It would be better, surely, to sacrifice beauty for practicality and cram a few more notes onto a page.
The Early String Quartet series promises volumes from many countries, and will include quartets in non-standard scorings such as violin, two violas and cello. Eventually we should be able to gain from the series a full knowledge of this phenomenally active period in the genre's history, but already, with these three volumes, we are offered a rewarding glimpse into a largely unfamiliar world.
Also from Steglein, and produced to the same high standard, are the six quartets for flute, violin, viola and basso continuo by Quantz. The editor, Mary Oleskiewicz, has written in EM, xxxi (2003), pp. 484-505, about the recovery of the manuscript of this hitherto unknown opus from Kiev, where it had been since World War II. Probably composed in Dresden in the 1720s, after Quantz's study trip to Rome, the quartets are written in an elegant Italianate contrapuntal style, not at all like the galant music he was to write later, and not, perhaps, showing any great individuality. But the composers one is reminded of—Telemann, Vivaldi in places, and sometimes the Bach of the Brandenburg Concertos—give an idea of the quality of the music, which is, moreover, composed with a Telemann-like expertise, giving each instrument opportunities to shine while integrating it beautifully into an overall structure. The First Quartet has something of the character of a miniature flute concerto; the last one is outstanding, too, with its brilliant Bach-like Allegro, eloquent Grave, and resourceful, energetic, fugal finale. All the music is grateful to play, and I can imagine it being welcomed not only by flutists and violinists, but especially by viola players, whose solo repertory from this period is so meagre.
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