Quartetto Elisa

Bottesini: Three String Quartets

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Giovanni Bottesini was one of the few Italian composers of the 19th century to be known primarily for instrumental music, although even he was heavily involved with opera (he conducted the premiere of Verdi's Aida in Egypt). Bottesini was a double bass virtuoso and wrote a number of showpiece works for that instrument that are still played. He was also interested in chamber music from across the Alps, however, and he composed some for like-minded enthusiasts who met ("almost surreptitiously," you learn from the booklet notes, [in English only] by the energetic Danilo Prefumo) to perform quartets and the like. The three string quartets here were written between 1858 and 1862. Overall they're somewhere between Haydn and Beethoven in basic language, and each is in four movements with a conventional sonata-form opening movement, a minuet or scherzo, a slow movement, and an allegro finale. The presence of the minuet in the String Quartet No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 2, suggests the conservative nature of the musical language, but the music is never less than tuneful, and each quartet contains some original moments. The slow movements are the best, with a dramatic, operatic feel and an expanded harmonic palette; the andante introduction of the first movement of the String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 4, also has the feeling of being part of an operatic aria but is entirely idiomatic to the string quartet. The performances by Italy's Quartetto Elisa, recorded in 1996 in an Italian Benedictine monastery, are clean, warm, and free of any tendency to try to make more of the music than is actually there. Any one of these quartets could make an attractive and unfamiliar opening to a chamber music concert, and this is music that string players should get to know.

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