Knowing where to drop the needle on the string quartets of Donizetti presents more of a challenge than exploring the lasting treasures of his vast catalogue of operas, where posterity has already established a pecking order with Lucia di Lammermoor at its head. But Donizetti was more than a pioneer of bel canto, and the Quartetto Delfico present new recordings of three of the later and most richly developed examples of his mastery as a chamber-music composer, which sound no less assured and distinctive than his works for the stage.
The opening movement of No. 15 in F major plays teasingly with the famous opening melody of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (much as Shostakovich did in the finale of his Second Violin Concerto, a century and a half later), draining it of anxiety and infusing a bright-eyed joie de vivre instead. This sunny mood spills over into the lyrical Andante. Haydn would no doubt have smiled at Donizetti’s ingenuity in developing the material for the Minuet from little more than the open strings of the ensemble, and the finale’s introduction springs a surprise worthy of the older master of the string quartet, turning unexpectedly to the minor and then racing off with the visceral drama of an act-finale from one of his operatic tragedies.
Nos. 17 and 18 are both even more substantial and compelling works in their ways, composed in 1825 and 1836 respectively; the first movement of No.18 in E minor was later reused in the opening sinfonia of Linda de Chamounix in 1842. They continue to refine Donizetti’s Haydnesque inclination towards economy of means and singularity of gesture. The first movement of No.17 creates a terse drama from thematic questions and answers, and its ostensible D major key is continually belied by harmonic stress and strain.
Finally, in No.18, Donizetti fully embraces the potential for the quartet as a medium of musical tragedy as potent as any abandoned heroine. This is a half-hour piece as ambitious and surprising as any of the mature quartets by his great predecessors in the medium, notable not just for an extended slow movement but also the nervous energy of its minuet.
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) certainly owes his fame and success to his operatic output (L'Elisir d'amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, La figlia del reggimento), but few know that he was also a prolific composer of string quartets, and was certainly the most important Italian composer of the genre in the nineteenth century. In fact, Donizetti wrote as many as 18 complete quartets between 1817 and 1836.
From a formal, aesthetic point of view, Donizetti is a classical composer in every way. The great masters represented a point of reference for him, a model he could refer to. Nevertheless, he never imitated them tout-court. The differences between Donizetti's compositional choices and Viennese style are quite distinct in formal structure, distribution of the parts, and musical quality. This may be attributed to his personal theatrical genius, to the extent that one can almost recognize real Donizettian opera scenes among the pages of these quartets.
This CD presents the String Quartets Nos. 15, 17 and 18, fully mature masterworks of their genre.
Performed with obvious enthusiasm and taste by the Italian Quartetto Delfico, who previously recorded for Brilliant Classics string quartets by Manfredini (94786).
Praise for the Quartetto Delfico on Brilliant Classics
‘As nicely composed as these works are, it is the performance that really makes them come alive. The Quartetto Delfico is evenly matched in tone... The phrasing matches the music and the tempos are nicely lively… In short, this is an excellent disc.’ Fanfare (Manfredini, 94786)