Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973)
The String Quartets
String Quartet No.1 ‘Rispetti e strambotti (1920)
String Quartet No.2 ‘Stornelli e Ballate’ (1923)
String Quartet No.3 ‘Cantàri alla madrigalesca’ (1931)
String Quartet No.4 (1934)
String Quartet No.5 ‘Dei capricci’ (1941)
String Quartet No.6 ‘L’arca di Noè’ (1947)
String Quartet No.7 (1950)
String Quartet No.8 ‘Quartetto per Elisabetta’ (1964)
Quartetto di Venezia
rec. 1996, Studio di registrazione Dynamic, Genoa
DYNAMIC CDS7976.02 [67 + 57]

This twofer is a reissue of a cycle recorded in 1996 (review) and reviewed here in 2001 by my colleague Hubert Culot. There’s also an ASV cycle from around this time reviewed by Peter Grahame Woolf, no relation to me (review), and which I’ve not heard for comparative purposes.

Malipiero’s eight string quartets were composed over a period of 44 years and show a remarkably consonant stylistic development. The First was recorded by the Stuyvesant Quartet in the very early 1950s, a reading of expressive beauty (review), and available on Bridge.

That First Quartet, composed in 1920 and showing the impressionist influence of Debussy and folk textures alike, is his most extended quartet at (here) 22 minutes. Its partition points are clear as are the ritornello figures. Malipiero’s way is not development, more successive panels of light, colour or contrast but he ensures that the work ends with a reflection on the Italian baroque so close to his musical heart, cadences of almost ecclesiastical beauty and refinement. The Second Quartet is related to the First in several structurally important ways but is more compressed and in some ways even more lyrical. It generates real propulsion and sonority and this malleable movement alternates with light textures.

The athleticism of Malipiero’s conception is a distinguishing feature of the quartets; tightly constructed single-movement works that bring a heavy quotient of Venetian energy, myriad in effect, constantly referencing, briefly but adroitly, Italian Baroque and his rich folkloric storehouse. That’s certainly the procedure in String Quartet No.3 ‘Cantàri alla madrigalesca’ (1931) by which time impressionism has been lightly dispersed. A greater sense of fluidity and metrical flexibility enters with the Fourth Quartet of 1934. The occasional eruptive material seems more organic than in previous quartets where paragraphal points could impede and threaten to destabilise the music.

The wartime Fifth Quartet was written concurrently with an operatic project and here a greater sense of textural clarity infiltrates itself into the music. In part lyrically effusive this is an effective work that reflects cross-pollination of influence but also an increasing tightening of procedure, so that incidental elements are more clearly subsumed into the musical argument. No.6, though once again in a single movement, is in three ‘parts’, two Allegros surrounding a central quasi-improvised section which has catchy, playful elements.

The last two quartets show an increasing enthusiasm for chromaticism, and this means a moving away from the mid-period clarity established earlier in the cycle. If you welcome clotted textures and thickening of the quartet sonority, you’ll enjoy No.7 where livelier music includes a clarifying lyricism alongside that sense of effortful skirling dynamism. In 1964 he wrote his final quartet, the tautest yet, in which the material is foregrounded and saturated in chromaticism. The fugal elements that also motor the music are eloquent tribute to his command of the quartet medium and his skill in introducing disparate material without ever becoming academic.

Suitably, these recordings are played by the Quartetto di Venezia, city of Malipiero’s birth. They play with fulsome commitment and the booklet notes, reprised from that earlier appearance, will tell you all you need to know. Fortunately, all eight quartets can easily be contained on two CDs.

Jonathan Woolf 

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