Casal Quartett

Birth of the String Quartet, Vol. 1

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This German release purports to recount the "birth of the string quartet," something almost as nebulous and hard to pin down as the birth of the blues. The upside is that this is a set of clean, rather antique-sounding performances on a set of seventeenth century instruments that are interesting in themselves; all are products of the same maker, Austrian Jacob Stainer. The downside is that the program tells you only half the story. The handsome booklet (in German and English) notes that Haydn's Op. 1 quartets, which are of immense importance in the history of the form but aren't included here, "are neither very subtle nor elaborate or complicated, rather they seem blithely playful or even cheeky and are surprisingly short." That seems to rule them out for this program, which is less about the birth of the string quartet than about how it became music for connoisseurs. The casalQuartett (that's how the group spells it, and rock and bluegrass fans will be pleased to note the presence of a Zappa and two Flecks in the group) traces the appearance of music in four string parts, without continuo, going back as far as a Sonata a quattro of Alessandro Scarlatti. Leaving aside the question of whether this and the following Sinfonia by G.B. Sammartini were intended for performances by one instrument per part, they don't sound much like early string quartets in terms of texture and mood. That's because it grew not only out of music for four string parts, but out of a variety of light forms for small group without continuo, variously named Divertimento (an especially common title even for bona fide for string quartets up to about the mid-1770s), Serenade, Feldparthie, or Cassation, among other terms. It was Haydn who saw how these pieces could be connected with the old contrapuntal tradition, and, with a single quartet from Op. 9 represented here, he gets short shrift. On the other hand, the String Quartet in C minor, Op. 2/1 (1761), of Luigi Boccherini is a strong point here; an ambitious product of the 18-year-old composer, it exposes a little-known example of serious chamber music apparently unconnected with German Sturm und Drang. If you're after a history of the string quartet, pick up some Haydn recordings of his early chamber music as well as or instead of this disc, but the music here is interesting and well if rather dryly played on its own terms.

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