Quatuor Thaïs

A.E.M Grétry: Sei Quartetti

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These "sei quartetti" of Belgian-born composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, later one of the preeminent opera composers of the last days of the old French regime, bear an Italian title because they were written in his youth, while he was studying in Italy with Mozart's teacher Padre Martini, among others. They're quite a mixed bag. Grétry became a backer of Rousseau's campaign to exalt pure, natural Italianate melody over the moribund strictures generated by French poetry and prose. But at this stage he concludes two of these quartets with fugues. Other movements are sprightly and melodic, with transparent textures of the sort that Rousseau would have praised; Grétry is at his best here with aria-like miniatures such as the "C minor Larghetto" of the Quartetto II in E flat major. All the quartets are in three movements except for the third, which has a minuet interpolated into the first of two movements. The movement sequences don't have much logic to them, and the pieces lack unity -- indeed, Grétry seems to have picked and chosen from among them to assemble sinfonias later on. Still, the Quatuor Thaïs provides graceful, lively performances that uncover a young composer of considerable originality; if these pieces aren't uniformly successful, neither are they derivative. And they help illuminate an early chapter of the string quartet's history, dating from a time at which Rousseau complained that "there are hardly any real string quartets, and the ones that are around are not worth a bean." The string quartet was a genre of the future at this point, and this disc is recommended for lovers of Classical-era music who may wish to observe a young composer struggling to shape it.

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