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Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882 - 1973)
Complete String Quartets
Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia
Recorded: Dynamic Studios, Genova, May and September 1996
DYNAMIC CDS 168/1-2 [68:08 + 57:19]
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Gian Francesco Malipiero led a long, busy and prolific life. His vast output includes numerous works in every genre but the most significant part of it is to be found in his operas, his symphonies and his eight string quartets. Indeed, his symphonies (there are eleven "numbered" symphonies and six "unnumbered" ones including the withdrawn and probably destroyed Sinfonia degli eroi of 1905) and his string quartets span his entire composing life and therefore provide for an illuminating survey of Malipiero's musical progress. In this respect, the string quartets may still be more telling than the symphonies: First, there are fewer of them and, second, the quartets seem to follow a straighter line, stylistically speaking, than the symphonies.

Malipiero's approach to the string quartet genre is highly idiosyncratic (because he generally avoided the classical models of Haydn or Beethoven) and logical (in that he wanted to renew Italian music by freeing it from the Verist fashion and by concentrating on more abstract forms). This liberating attitude is clearly evident in the first three string quartets which all refer - directly or indirectly - to older popular Italian musical forms as implied by their subtitles, although Malipiero's subtitles are sometimes highly misleading (this is particularly true with the subtitles of the symphonies).

The first string quartet Rispetti e Strambotti was completed in 1920. Malipiero eschews any reference to classical models by structuring the work as a sequence of short sections interspersed by the opening phrase working as a ritornello although the piece falls into three larger sections, the central one of a more improvisatory character being separated of the outer ones by long pauses. The first string quartet is probably the best known of the whole cycle because it was recorded many years ago by the Stuyvesant Quartet (on TURNABOUT, I think) and also because it exists in a version for string orchestra which has been recorded some years ago by I Solisti Italiani (DENON CO-77150).

The second string quartet Stornelli e Ballate of 1923 is likewise structured as a panel sequence of short sections. It clearly sets forth along the same lines as the first string quartet and so does the third string quartet Cantari alla Madrigalesca of 1931 (which also exists in a version for string orchestra). Both quartets may be said to refer to older musical forms although the subtitle of the third string quartet may simply allude to the singing quality of the music throughout the piece.

The fourth string quartet, completed in 1934, does not bear any subtitle and shows a clear advance on the earlier quartets as far as structure is concerned: here Malipiero relies more on counterpoint than ever before and writes in longer paragraphs although he deliberately eschews any attempt at traditional development in all his string quartets and even in his symphonies.

The fifth string quartet Dei Capricci was completed and published in 1950, i.e. after the sixth string quartet, but it reworks some material from Malipiero's 1940 opera I Capricci di Callot, which is why it was eventually included as the fifth quartet. (Incidentally, Paolo Cattelan who wrote the insert notes states that the quartet was written in 1941 BUT published in 1950.) In it Malipiero seems to revert to the style of his earlier quartets and is rather a sequence of 'capricious' moods.

The sixth string quartet L'Arca di Noe completed in 1947 is yet another example of Malipiero's unconventional approach. The subtitle ('Noah's Ark') has given way to several, sometimes diverging interpretations. Some think that it refers to the fact that Malipiero's home was a refuge for numerous animals and that he was said to be used to composing with an owl perched on his shoulder! Others think that it refers to Malipiero's attempt at gathering sometimes disparate elements into one single entity. Needless to say that I think the latter is the most likely.

Again the seventh string quartet written in 1950 has no subtitle. It also relies more heavily on counterpoint although classical models are kept at bay.

Malipiero's last string quartet Per Elisabetta, completed in 1964, is once more dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, hence the subtitle which for once has a real meaning. It is his shortest string quartet and also a work in which Malipiero again moved into new expressive territories. The music of the eighth string quartet sometimes verges on atonality, and it is one of his most complex scores. (By the time he was 82!)

Malipiero's string quartets undoubtedly rank among his most impressive achievements and certainly equals Bartók's or Shostakovich's in encompassing a huge range of emotions reflecting the composer's concerns at the time of composition. Malipiero's ever-questing mind is at work throughout the whole series, which is why his string quartets are sometimes at odds with each other while clearly sharing the same origins and aims. Again, they are among his more significant works and, unquestionably, among the most important Italian works of the mid-20th Century.

The Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia have obviously devoted much care and affection in preparing their performances of Malipiero's string quartets. Their readings are beautifully shaped, with an evident regard for the music and are given a warm recording.

The only competitor so far is the Orpheus String Quartet who recorded the whole series for ASV (ASV DCD 457 published in 1991). This set is also very fine and there is very little indeed to choose between both, the DYNAMIC recording may only be given a marginally warmer sound. Both sets are recommended and these newcomers are certainly second to none in this absorbing, though very rewarding cycle.

Recommended with any reservations.

Hubert Culot