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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
String Quartet in E minor (1873) [22:59]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
String Quartet, Op. 56 (Voces intimae) (1908-09) [30:52]
Vertavo String Quartet
rec. ěstre Fredrikstad Church, March 2010

Here's a distinctive pairing of quartets, from composers both known, literally, for bigger things: Verdi for operas, Sibelius for large orchestral works, though he did compose successfully in a variety of smaller-scaled genres.

The Quartet that Verdi apparently composed "merely for amusement" doesn't sound particularly Verdian, save in a yearning cello phrase in the Andantino; its rhythmic and structural regularity suggests early-Romantic German models. The first movement's first group builds from short motifs, complete with a fugato; the second is a calm chorale. Busier accompaniments betray the "exposition repeat" as, in fact, the start of the development. The Andantino is a wilting waltz, like the Mendelssohnian side of Tchaikovsky. The volatile, driving Prestissimo and its broad, lyrical trio suggest Schubert; the finale, confusingly designated Scherzo fuga -- the previous movement functions as the "scherzo" proper -- scurries about, with contrasting open textures.

Conversely, the Sibelius is thoroughly typical in its use of short, segmented phrases and ostinato accompaniments and its reserved, haunting demeanour; it shares the symphonies's breadth of expression without straining at its chamber proportions. The first movement generates counterpoint from the interplay of motifs, while the second, another scurrying scherzo, opens into full-bodied, dancelike climaxes; both end rather abruptly. The wistful, stoic Adagio di molto turns fervent before settling, finally, into a clear ending. The whirling accompaniments in the fourth movement, too, are a Sibelius trademark. The finale races its eighth-note patterns, sometimes in full chords, to a satisfying finish.
The Vertavo String Quartet serves both scores expertly. The players' incisive, Brahmsian attacks are impressive in Verdi's first movement; some tonal quality is lost at quieter dynamics, but, in the Andantino, there's no such problem. The ensemble rises to intense chordal climaxes in Sibelius's Adagio. Save for a moment in that composer's Vivace that briefly loses the scansion, rhythmic grounding, shaping, and inflection are excellent throughout the program.

As so frequently, the forte treble is more aggressive than I'd prefer, but the reproduction is basically very good.

Stephen Francis Vasta