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The 8 String Quartets

The Orpheus String Quartet
ASV DCD 457 [65.13+59.22]

This was completely uncharted territory for me, its exploration one of those serendipitous spin-offs from encounters through Seen&Heard - on this occasion the Luis de Pablo celebrations at San Sebastian, which featured the marvellous Orpheus String Quartet.

Gian Francesco Malipiero is far from an unknown name. As a musicologist, he was a pioneer in Monteverdi studies and responsible for the first publication of all his works. Prolific as a composer (fourteen symphonies, nine concertos, about 30 operas etc etc) and long lived (1882-1973), one comes across his music from time to time. Inclusion of a piece of his is unlikely to help fill (or to completely empty) a concert hall. I had pigeon-holed him as a worthy second-ranker, who would be played more in UK if he had been British. Perhaps his music is as well known in Italy as, say, Vaughan-Williams is hereabouts?

New Grove characterises Malipiero as 'although very uneven - - the most original and inventive Italian composer of his generation', but whose final phase has many products that 'can reasonably be dismissed as meandering ruminations of an old man'. Yet it is not that simple; at 88 Uno dei dieci was 'one of his most concentratedly inspired' theatre works!

The eight string quartets (1920-64) are a revelation, certainly here as recorded by the then young, and now unsurpassed, Orpheus Quartet, which still has its original multi-national membership. The release in 1991 of this 2-CD set, recorded in Surrey, brought good reviews, but I wonder whether sales have been maintained? This re-assessment is a vindication of Music on the Web's policy of exploring back catalogues as well as latest releases.

Each of these user-friendly quartets is in a single movement, with episodic, contrasting sections in fast and slow tempi. Domestic circumstances may be of no concern to readers, but I cannot resist sharing our enjoyment of one each (the longest 20 mins, the shortest eleven) over eight consecutive meals. Malipiero did not write rigorous string quartets, seeking instead 'freedom of sound according to - - inspiration of the moment'. They are fresh and each one goes its own, unpredictable way, 'fanciful, witty and charming - - over a tart harmonic background' (Robert Bernard). That invariably shrewd and perceptive commentator, Harry Halbreich describes him as 'an independent who - - did not linger over impressionism - - retained a taste for freedom, fantasy, clarity and concision - - his melodic counterpoint - - eventually made use (not systematically) of dodecaphonic structure'.

They were all dedicated to Mrs Sprague-Coolidge, whose award of her prize to the first one in 1920 was a gateway to the composer's fame. The last of the Malipiero quartets, written when he was 82, takes its terms of reference from dodecaphony and atonality, and is as invigorating a demonstration as you will find of 'how to adapt perfectly artificial idioms to a perfectly natural language' (Fred Goldbeck). That is a perennial problem in today's new music. All of them composed before the introduction of a multiplicity of 'extended techniques', these quartets exploit the inexhaustible melodic resources of four strings played normally. They are a gift to a good string quartet and should find welcome niches in recital programmes.

Excellent recording quality and comprehensive, interesting notes by Jean-Yves Bras.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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