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The origins of the string quartet

[I] "'Tis too late to be wise - String quartets before the string quartet"
Kitgut Quartet
rec: Feb 11 - 14, 2019, Limousin, Ferme de Villefavard
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902313 (© 2020) (53'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BLOW (1649-1708): Venus and Adonis (Act tune); Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Quartet in D, op. 71,2 (H III,70); Matthew LOCKE (1621/23-1677): Consort of Four Parts, Suite No. 1 in d minor (courante; ayre); Consort of Four Parts, Suite No. 2 in D; The Tempest (Curtain tune); Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Chacony in g minor (Z 730); Fantasia a 4 No. 2 in B flat (Z 736); Fantasia a 4 No. 8 in G (Z 742); King Arthur (Z 628) (Fairest isle; hornpipe); Pavan in g minor (Z 752); The History of Timon of Athens (Z 632) (Curtain tune on a ground)

Amandine Beyer, Naaman Sluchin, violin; Josèphe Cottet, viola; Frédéric Baldassare, cello

[II] "The Evolution of the String Quartet"
Musica Fiorita
Dir: Daniela Dolci
rec: Oct 21 - 24, 2019, Basel, Adullam-Kapelle
Pan Classics - PC 10415 (© 2020) (61'30")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni Maria BONONCINI (1642-1678): Sonata a 3 in F, op. 3,17; Sonata a 4 senza basso in E flat, op. 3,16; Maddalena Laura LOMBARDINI SIRMEN (1745-1818): Quartet in E flat, op. 3,1; Quartet in f minor, op. 3,5; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Sonata 1a a 4 senza cembalo in f minor; Sonata 2a a 4 senza cembalo in c minor; Sonata 3a a 4 senza cembalo in g minor; Sonata 4a a 4 senza cembalo in d minor

Sources: Giovanni Maria Bononcini, Varii fiori del giardino musicale, op. 3, 1669; Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen, Six Quartettes à deux violons, alto, e basso, op. 3, 1769

Germán Echeverri, Karoline Echeverri Klemm, violin; Lola Fernandez, viola; Jonathan Pešek, cello; Juan Sebastián Lima, theorbo; Daniela Dolci, harpsichord

The string quartet has been one of the main genres of chamber music from the last quarter of the 18th century until our time. Whereas it is not difficult to establish when the solo concerto was invented, the origins of the string quartet are harder to define. The two discs under review seem to represent two different views. The answer to the question when the first quartets were written, depends largely on how one defines the string quartet.

Peter Reidemeister, in his liner-notes to the Pan Classics disc, states that on the basis of what was written in this genre by Boccherini and Haydn, "a string quartet should include the typical homogeneous string sound of the violin family, four-part harmony, an equality of the voices, soloistic instrumentation and the omission of basso continuo, as well as the to-and-fro of musical discourse, which Goethe famously compared to 'listening to four rational people conversing among themselves'". The inclusion of 'omission of basso continuo' excludes some pieces that are often considered early forms of the string quartet, which have a bass part that shows the rudiments of the basso continuo practice, and which allow for the participation of a chordal instrument. In the booklet to the Harmonia mundi recording, no attempt is made to define the form. However, Jeanne Roudet also refers to the 'conversation' metaphor. The way the two ensembles investigate the origins of the string quartet is quite different.

The Kitgut Quartet turns to the 17th century, and presents pieces by Henry Purcell and Matthew Locke as if they were rudimentary forms of the string quartet. There seems to be a good reason to do so, as all the pieces are in four parts, which are equally important. However, if we have a closer look at the repertoire, it is hard to agree with this approach. First, it is not entirely clear that all the pieces are intended for a performance with one voice per part. It is suggested that the curtain tune pieces - played in front of a lowered curtain during set changes in the theatre - may have been performed that way, but that is anything but sure. Moreover, these pieces all include a bass part which was clearly intended for a treatment as a basso continuo to be performed by a chordal instrument. Here they are performed with a string bass alone. That leads to the second issue: the Kitgut Quartet obviously plays the bass part on a cello. However, at the time Locke composed his music the cello was hardly known in England, and even in Purcell its use is highly questionable. A viola da gamba or bass violin would be the most obvious option. That is not the only problem with regard to the line-up. In Purcell's music the violin takes an important place, but in Locke's oeuvre it is playing a more marginal role. In some of his consort music, the violin could be used as an alternative to the treble viol. However, the Consorts of Four Parts are specifically intended for viols; here the violin is not mentioned as an alternative. My problem with the selection of repertoire is only emphasized by the way it is played: it sounds rather unidiomatic and anachronistic, and the marked dynamic accents are out of place here.

Musica Fiorita follows a different path, and rather focuses on developments in Italy. In the oeuvre of Giovanni Maria Bononcini one can find a sonata which has more marked traces of the string quartet than the oeuvre of his English contemporaries that are played by the Kitgut Quartet. The Sonata in E flat is specifically intended for four instruments senza basso. The harmonic progressions in this piece are remarkable, and "could hardly be represented by standard figured bass notation", according to Reidemeister. This sonata is preceded by another one from the same collection, which is for the conventional scoring of two violins and basso continuo. However, this is another piece full of harmonic experiments, which is very unusual for the time. It seems to me that the collection from which these two sonatas are taken, are well worth to be investigated and performed.

The programme then continues with four equally remarkable sonatas, also scored for strings without basso continuo, in this case indicated with senza cembalo (without harpsichord). Recently they were the subject of a recording by the ensemble Les Récréations. Matthieu Camilleri, its first violinist, stated that they are "situated halfway between the viol consort and the string quartet". One may wonder whether these sonatas are reminiscent of a gone era or rather point in the direction of the future. Maybe they do both. It is interesting that in the manuscript of these sonatas the titles include the term a tavolino: around the table. This refers to the practice of singing madrigals around a table, each of the singers with his or her part on it. This practice is also known from the way consort music was played in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. This term connects these pieces to the madrigals Scarlatti composed during a period of his career that he was highly interested in strict counterpoint. In letters referring to this part of his career, he twice mentions the name of Carlo Gesualdo.

The manuscript of this set of sonatas is a bit confusing, as Reidemeister explains. In the score the title of the third sonata includes the addition senza cembalo. However, the cello part contains bass figures; does this indicate that it can be performed with basso continuo after all? "In order to also put such a version up for discussion, we have employed a theorbo (not harpsichord!) in our recording to realise the continuo". It need to be added that this is only the case in the first sonata, which is a little odd considering that the bass figures appear in the third. Anyway, it is an interesting option, and that makes this recording at least partially different from that by Les Récréations.

Counterpoint, especially that according to the principles of the stile antico, means that all the voices are treated on equal footing, and exactly that is the case here. No wonder that all of them include a fugue, the most obvious demonstration of this procedure. In the first sonata, it is the second movement that has the form of a fugue - just as in the sonata da chiesa - but the other three open with a fugue. The latter shows that these sonatas don't fall into the category of the sonata da chiesa according to the model established by Corelli.

The disc ends with two real string quartets, and it is nice that the performers have opted for quartets by a little-known composer, Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen. She was from Venice and was educated as a violinist and a singer. She was in contact with Tartini and probably also received lessons from him, which tells us something about her qualities, as Tartini only wanted the most promising players as his pupils. From 1753 to 1766 she was a performing musician at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti in Venice. In 1767 she married the violinist Lodovico Sirmen. In 1768 they played together in Turin and at the Concert Spirituel in Paris; there her six string quartets were published in 1769. Later compositions include trios for two violins and cello, six violin concertos, six duets for two violins and a sonata for violin and basso continuo. She continued to perform as a violinist and a singer well into the 1780s. The two string quartets are fine specimens of early forms of this genre. The first is in two movements, the fifth in four. An important feature of her quartets is the evolution of the inner parts.

Musica Fiorita has presented a most interesting programme that in its selection of repertoire and its line of argument is more convincing than the Kitgut Quartet disc. The latter plays Haydn's Quartet in D very well, but that is available in many other recordings. Considering the qualities of the players individually and collectively there is every reason to hope for good recordings by this ensemble. We won't see any other recordings by Musica Fiorita, as recently this ensemble was disbanded. That is a big shame, as this disc is again a fine specimen of its art. The playing of the selected pieces is excellent and the blending of the strings is immaculate. Those interested in the string quartet have the chance to add something interesting to their collection that they probably don't have yet.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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