Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Andantino
Movement 3: Prestissimo
Movement 4: Scherzo fuga
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