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String Quartet in A major, Op 2

'Verdi & Strauss: String Quartets' (CDH55012)
Verdi & Strauss: String Quartets
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55012  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: Allegro
Track 5 on CDH55012 [8'28] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: Scherzo - Trio
Track 6 on CDH55012 [4'43] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 3: Andante cantabile
Track 7 on CDH55012 [8'45] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 4: Allegro vivace
Track 8 on CDH55012 [7'34] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

String Quartet in A major, Op 2
The conservative idiom of the young Strauss’s quartet is hardly surprising. Richard’s father ensured that his prodigiously gifted son received a thorough grounding in the classics while sternly disapproving of the heady romanticism of Wagner and Liszt. Later in life Strauss himself claimed that until the age of fourteen he heard nothing but the established repertoire. It was natural, therefore, that his earliest works, including the String Quartet, should be meticulously modelled on his great forebears. Composed during 1879 and 1880, the A major Quartet was dedicated to Strauss’s violin teacher, Benno Walter, whose ensemble gave the first performance, in Munich, on 14 March 1881. Though it was refused by the renowned publishers Breitkopf und Hartel, who can hardly be blamed for their lack of clairvoyance, the Quartet was accepted by the smaller firm of Joseph Aibl, who published it as Strauss’s Op 2.

Listeners coming to the outer movements without prior knowledge might well think they were the work of a gifted younger contemporary of Beethoven imitating the manner of the master’s Op 18 quartets. There is a whiff of Mendelssohn, of Schubert too in the con espressione second subject of the first movement; but the shape and balance of the themes, the cut of the cadences, the purposeful motivic working and the contrapuntal fluency, with thematic interest skilfully shared between the four voices—all these are strongly evocative of much of Beethoven’s first-period chamber music. But Strauss’s youthful over-eagerness to do justice to his thematic material is evident in both outer movements where the development sections, despite their complexity and diligent workmanship, are over-extended and reproduce the outlines of the exposition rather too closely.

Of the two inner movements the Scherzo, placed second, is an invigorating and entertaining piece, with fierce Beethovenish off-beat accents, suave Mozartian cadences and a recurrent drone bass that irresistibly recalls the Haydn of the late quartets. The Trio, in complete contrast, introduces a sinuous, slightly plaintive violin solo in a slower tempo. Though it touches no depths of feeling, the B minor Andante, in sonata form, has an attractive Mendelssohnian wistfulness; and Strauss’s treatment of the violin semiquaver figure which accompanies the second theme, and which permeates the development, is both neat and resourceful.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 1999

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