Hyperion Records

String Quartet in E minor

'Verdi & Strauss: String Quartets' (CDH55012)
Verdi & Strauss: String Quartets
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55012  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: Allegro
Track 1 on CDH55012 [7'32] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: Andantino
Track 2 on CDH55012 [7'50] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 3: Prestissimo
Track 3 on CDH55012 [3'11] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 4: Scherzo fuga
Track 4 on CDH55012 [4'34] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

String Quartet in E minor
Verdi handles classical sonata form with ease and subtlety in the opening Allegro, which contains a wealth of sharply characterized ideas within a tautly controlled design. The affinity between the first theme and a motif in Aida depicting Amneris’s jealousy has often been noted; on its repetition this theme is accompanied by a little staccato figure on the cello which is imaginatively transformed and developed during the exposition. After initiating a brief fugato it quietly underpins a new, restlessly modulating idea, is vigorously worked in contrapuntal combination with the opening theme and, finally, is expanded into a powerful unison sequence. In the midst of the exposition’s intense activity appears the reposeful second subject whose gracious lines and gently expressive chromatic harmonies unmistakably recall Mendelssohn. The superb development, often held down to pp or ppp, weaves together the main theme and the pervasive staccato figure in close counterpoint. Having concentrated intently on the opening theme in the development, Verdi omits it entirely from his condensed recapitulation, which opens in E major with the Mendelssohnian second subject but returns to the minor for the agitated animato coda.

Poised somewhere between a minuet and a mazurka, the Andantino in C major recreates something of Haydn’s spirit in terms of Verdi’s personal idiom. The fastidious elegance of the main theme, with its teasing tonal ambiguity, is rudely threatened by abrupt forte outbursts. An extended central section contains a shortened restatement of this theme, in a distant G flat major, between two vividly contrasting ideas—a hushed, conjunct melody of utter simplicity, sounded first in A minor and then, in a more expressively lyrical version, in B major; and an impassioned theme in pounding semiquavers which is cunningly derived from a tiny cello figure heard beneath the A minor melody. After a full reprise of the opening section a coda subtly draws together the movement’s diverse elements.

With its biting accents and sudden dynamic contrasts the third movement, back in E minor, is a scherzo of demonic energy which, as Julian Budden points out, looks back to the ballet music in Macbeth. There is also, in the whispering staccato central section, an uncanny reminiscence of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s final Quartet, Op 135. The A major Trio is the most overtly Italianate part of the work—a gloriously uninhibited cello melody sung beneath a simple pizzicato accompaniment.

Verdi had a number of precedents for fugal finales in the classical quartet repertoire, including five of Haydn’s and Beethoven’s Op 59 No 3. His own finale, Scherzo fuga, glances back at classical models but emerges as triumphantly individual as the previous movements. A tour de force of contrapuntal dexterity, complete with all manner of intricate fugal devices, it wears its learning with nonchalant lightness. The music’s unquenchable élan is enhanced by the kaleidoscopic changes of texture and by a ceaseless chromaticism that often blurs the tonality. Towards the close E major is firmly established as the fabric becomes less fugal, though the main subject is wittily and ingeniously developed right to the final peroration.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 1999

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA66317 track 2
Recording date
30 June 1988
Recording venue
St Paul's Church, New Southgate, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
John H West
Recording engineer
Tryggvi Tryggvason
Hyperion usage
  1. Verdi & Strauss: String Quartets (CDA66317)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: March 1989
    Deletion date: May 1999
    Superseded by CDH55012
  2. Verdi & Strauss: String Quartets (CDH55012)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: May 1999
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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