DONIZETTI: String Quartets Nos. 4-6 / Pleyel Quartett Köln / CPO 555 240-2
Sometimes, but often, you wonder why certain composers changed their styles from interesting and explorative to commonplace and predictable for any reason other than to make money. Aaron Copland is one; even up to and including Billy the Kid and El Sálon Mexico, his music was surprising and innovative, but it soon turned predictable and routine. Of course, in the case of Copland he was abandoning his earlier interest in the modern trends led by Stravinsky and others which were not terribly popular in order to fit into a bourgeois niche, but here, in the case of Gaetano Donizetti, he completely abandoned a genre in which he had exceptionally good training, and was also good at, which is not always the same thing, in order to write music that was tuneful and bouncy but had nothing much behind it besides “good tunes.”
I bypassed the Pleyel Quartett’s first volume of Donizetti quartets simply because I didn’t expect that they would be much good, but I gave this Vol. 2 a chance because, in the interim, I had discovered his first-rate Requiem Mass to the Memory of Bellini. Two features that these quartets have in common with the Requiem is a far more interesting use of melodic material, i.e. material that develops and does not just run through tunes, and sometimes quite surprising harmonic development which includes downward chromatic movement. Moreover, he uses these features quite naturally; none of it sounds forced, as if he were “trying” to be innovative but not sounding natural. In the third quartet, only the third-movement “Allegro” sounds like the Donizetti of the operas. The other movements all have features of interest about them.
The fifth quartet, written in E minor, also uses those downward chromatics and very cleverly (and naturally) moves into the major and back again. Also, Donizetti used the cellist in certain passages of the first movement as a ground bass, playing pizzicato counterpoint to the upper strings, a nice touch. The second movement of this quartet sounds surprisingly like Schubert would have written.
The downside of this release is that Pleyel Quartett Köln unfortunately plays with a pallid, white tone in sustained notes, as do most “straight-tone” quartets nowadays. It saddens me that so many such groups fail to recognize that the authentic style for string players in the 18th and 19th centuries was to use a quick, light vibrato on sustained notes and save the straight tone for the rapid passages. I was also a bit peeved by the excessive reverb around the instruments, which I found unnatural. Considering the fact that CPO already has what seems like a full set of the Donizetti string quartets on their label by a much superior group that calls themselves Revolutionary Drawing Room, I wonder what their attraction to the Pleyel Quartet is. In addition, an even better Italian quartet called Quartetto Bernini has recorded these exact same quartets, Nos. 4-6, on Tactus with an equally lively style and a far fuller and more beautiful timbre.
My recommendation, then, is to acquire the Quartetto Bernini’s album of these quartets, and if you like them to fill in with the Revolutionary Drawing Room recordings of others.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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