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Cover
Peter Sculthorpe, Ottorino Respighi

Brodsky Quartet / Anne Sofie von Otter

String Quartets

  • Type CD
  • Label Challenge Classics
  • UPC 0608917209822
  • Catalog number CC 72098
  • Release date 01 January 1999
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About the album

It will come as a surprise to many people that the famous orchestral composer Ottorino Respighi, known for such works as the Pines and the Fountains of Rome, also wrote chamber music. But Respighi was very interested in chamber music and wrote a considerable amount. 

Respighi (1879-1936) was born in Bologna and studied violin, piano and composition at the local conservatory. Becoming a first rate viola player, he was engaged to play a season for the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg where he met and subsequently studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov. Upon his return to Italy, he took up residence in Rome where he lived for the rest of his life.

O. Respighi - Quartetto in Re Maggiore (D Major)

Respighi composed this string quartet in 1904. This work dates from the time when the composer was a member of the Mugellini Quartet in Bologna and was first performed in 1906; it belongs to his early period (he was around 25 years old). It is in four sections: allegro moderato, tema con variazioni, intermezzo and finale. The Brodskys give a warm, open-hearted account of this section and the tempo is as indicated. The theme of the second section will be familiar to those who know Respighi’s works from this period; it has rather a sense of longing. The variations are taken up by the different instruments in turn and a mournful-sounding variation is given by the violins and viola accompanied by staccato cello. Rising and falling themes reminiscent of Puccini’s "Crisantemi" on violins feature in the third section which transforms into a rondo-like passage where each instrument successively takes them up. The last section consisting of taut allegros (which seems to presage the Violin Sonata of 1917) has separate, exuberant, solos for the violin and viola ending in a dramatic flourish Il Tramonto.

O. Respighi - Il Tramonto (The Sunset)

Respighi set several of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poems, but only three were set for mezzo-soprano and orchestra: Arethusa in 1910, Il tramonto in 1914, and La Sensitiva between 1914 and 1915. Of the three, Il tramonto (The Sunset) was also written for voice and string quartet, and is heard in this version as often as in the chamber orchestral version. The smaller accompanimental forces give the piece a much more intimate feeling, beautifully suiting the nature of the poem. The strings open the work dramatically, then settle down to a calm lyricism. The singer describes the "One within whose subtle being...genius and death contended." The music swells as the poem tells of his love for a Lady. It then serenely describes the field they walk through, the nature around them, and the colors of the sunset with a repeated, rounded-contour figure similar to what is found in a Field or Chopin nocturne. Very quietly, with the strings almost still, the Youth wonders "Is it not strange...I never saw the sun? We will walk here To-morrow; thou shall look on it with me." A brief interlude follows, and the nature figure returns before the music turns to hard chords as the Lady finds the Youth dead the next morning. The chords soften as the poem describes how she "died not, nor grew wild, but year by year lived on...." A lighter texture with moving musical lines underscores the poem's description of her life, with the lower strings sometimes moving in parallel lines to the voice. The Lady's final appeal for the same peace that the Youth found in death is uttered with a calm weariness before a violin solo concludes the piece in the major. The impression of the whole work is that of a romantic ballad or a tone poem in miniature, because the strings do not just provide a harmony to the voice's melody, but actually describe the text as well. The mezzo-soprano then fits in as essentially another instrument, reciting the poem in an arioso fashion. Respighi's wonderfully textured music not only convincingly evokes the scenes of the poem, but also expresses the sentiments of the two characters, revealing a more personal aspect of his talent. 

O. Respighi - Quartetto Dorico

This work dates from a very prolific period when Respighi was becoming internationally famous with Pini di Roma. He based the work on one of the ancient modes, Dorian (or Doric). It is played through as a single movement but this can be divided into 4 sections I. Energico, 2. Allegro moderato, 3. Elegiaco (adagio), 4. Moderato energico (Passacaglia). The Brodskys give out the (chorale) theme strongly and it is expanded and taken up consecutively by each instrument. The performance varies between strong, almost strident or harsh and changes to sweeping lyrical passages in quick succession. The scherzo section is flowing but the fugato at the end is more vivace and the players give it a kind of post-modern edge. The adagio section follows smoothly on and the Brodskys bring out the supporting parts for ‘cello and viola with darting cross movements for first violin leading the way. The finale section recapitulates the Dorian theme. The quartet is a prime example of how Respighi was so greatly influenced by music of the past as it explores the use of eight different modes throughout its single-movement structure.

P. Sculthorpe - String Quartet no.11 'Jabiro Dreaming'

This string quartet has an unusual descriptive quality. Its strange, static harmonies and floating sounds create a dream-like impression, typical of the music that has made Sculthorpe one of Australia's best-known composers. 

Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929) of Launceston, Tasmania (the large island state located south of the Australian continent), had the typical training of Australian musicians of his and earlier generations: His higher musical education was achieved in Britain, where he studied with Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz at Oxford. When he returned to Australia in 1961 for his father's funeral, he stayed there, and quickly applied the most modern techniques of the time (evidently excluding the twelve-tone system), trying to evoke the sounds of Australia and East Asia in his music. 

The quartet Jaribu Dreaming is one of a number of works finding their inspiration in the Kakadu National Park in Northern Australia. The first of these pieces, Kakadu (1988) was actually inspired only by photographs and written descriptions. Sculthorpe put the pictures on the walls of his studio while working on it. He found, as usual, that the vast landscape of the pictures and the sense of very slow geological change in Australia fit in with his habitual use of long pedal points and other devices to achieve slow harmonic movement in his music which, in his case, conveys a similar sense of vastness. 

Sculthorpe actually visited Kakadu for the first time the year after he wrote the orchestral composition named after it, and readily admits that if he had visited first the music would have been quite different -- less harsh in sound, for one thing. His subsequent Kakadu works reflect his impressions of the actual place. 

Jaribu Dreaming is the result of a commission from the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco-based ensemble that has done much to spread Sculthorpe's music in America. Sculthorpe says his use of long pedals comes from his admiration from Mahler's Song of the Earth. The root idea of this quartet is the simple pattern A flat - G, found in the Mahler work and also part of astronomer Johannes Kepler's theoretical music for the planet Earth's part in the "Harmony of the Spheres." 

Sculthorpe says that in writing his Kakadu works he recalls the great floodplains and abandoned European settlements there, and, in imagination, the northern sea and Indonesia beyond. 

The quartet, nearly 15 minutes long, is in two movements. The first, Deciso, is built around rhythm patterns found in Aboriginal didjeridoo music, which Sculthorpe says are echoed in the rhythmic walking gait of the jaribu, a kind of stork. Decisive, staccato bowing, percussive treatment of the strings, and overlapping rhythms are main features of this active movement. 
The longer slow movement, Liberamente; Estatico is happy meditative music. It is built on an Aboriginal theme notated in 1802, plus two typically Australian rhythmic patterns. A faster middle section represents the imaginary looking cross the Arafura Sea to Indonesia in its use of Balinese rhythms.

P. Sculthorpe - Little Serenade

Peter Sculthorpe's creative sojourn was similar to just about every Australian serious music composer, who either remained in Britain or returned to write transplanted British music. But Sculthorpe, who wanted to describe the Australian landscape and the genuine Australian culture, specialized in music firmly related to particular places in and around Australia. In 1968 film director Michael Powell hired him to score a motion picture filmed on the Great Barrier Reef east of Australia, called Age of Consent. 
After recording the soundtrack, Sculthorpe went to Japan for a planned stay in a Zen monastery. In assembling the picture, the producers found that there were technical faults in part of the soundtrack recording that precluded its use in the film. They fired messages off to Sculthorpe, requesting his return or at least that he send them the score for re-recording. These urgent requests did not get to him on time, and he was unable to respond by the time the producers required an answer. So they engaged a British composer to write a whole new score. 
Sculthorpe released his title theme music for the film under the name Song of Innocence. Nine years later the Austral Quartet asked him for a short piece to play as an encore. Sculthorpe fulfilled their request with this sensitive and very pretty two-minute song, arranged for string quartet. 
The mood of the Little Serenade is entirely sweet and innocent. It has a lovely melody, gentle and simple enough to use as a popular song, and a softly pulsing accompaniment figure.

P. Sculthorpe - From Nourlangie

The music of Tasmanian-born composer Peter Sculthorpe blends his European heritage with a timeless sense suggesting the great vistas of Australia, and strong echoes, as it were, of Asian music lying just over the horizon. The later quality is strong in this piece, which is a new treatment of a musical idea from his guitar concerto Nourlangie (1989). That work was written just after Sculthorpe had first visited Kakadu National Park, in the north of Australia. Within the park is an enormous rock monolith called "Nourlangie." From a viewpoint in the park, Sculthorpe looked out across an enormous plain where ruins exist of early which settlements, the Arufura Sea, and Torres Strait. In his imagination he could also picture the islands of Indonesia, Australia's nearest neighbor. 
From Nourlangie is a five-minute piece for clarinet, violin, and piano, made by Sculthorpe for the Verdehr Trio. The concerto has two main motives, one of which is from a Torres Strait dance-song. In the concerto that motive is transformed into a long, happy melody. That melody is the main material in this trio. After a long slow introduction the melody is stated three times. The sound of the piece is exotic, using Indonesian musical figurations in the piano part. 

P. Sculthorpe - String Quartet no.8

This string quartet is exotic in sound and modern in technique, but also dramatic and strongly communicative. It is no more radical in sound that Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 3 or 5. 
Peter Sculthorpe (born in 1929 in Launceston, Tasmania) returned to Australia permanently in 1961 after receiving a British musical education. During the decade of the 1960s he began trying to evoke the Australian landscape and sometimes quoting the exotic music found in and around Australia. To do so he often used the latest avant-garde techniques. 
In the 1960s Sculthorpe became deeply interested in the music of Japan and Indonesia. A prime influence was the book Music in Bali: a Study in Form and Instrumental Organization in Balinese Orchestral Music by the Canadian-American composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee. 
In the 1960s Sculthorpe wrote more than one composition that included imitations of the sounds of Balinese music: whirling high woodwind ostinatos, low piccolo, vibraphones, and multi-tiered interlocked tempos depending on the register of the part. Sculthorpe says critics called this sort of piece "Suzie Wong music." 
By the time Sculthorpe wrote this music he was mostly through with making direct imitations of Balinese sounds, but had infused his deeper compositional technique with some of the processes and techniques McPhee had described in his book. This quartet is 14 minutes long and is in five concise movements. The broad shape of the quartet is similar to that of Bartók's Fifth String Quartet: Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast-Slow. 
In this case all the slow movements are marked the same, "con dolore," and have similar moods and share material. The middle flanking movements of this musical arch are fast movements, and likewise share material. 
Most of the quartet, whether fast or slow, has Sculthorpe's trademark slow harmonic motion. The first con dolore evokes the mood of the arja, a Balinese theatrical form and uses, through the length of the quartet, two Balinese melodies from McPhee's book. There are strange tweetings and flutterings in the upper parts. It is left hanging, serving its function as an introduction. 
The first fast movement is marked Risoluto; Calmo; Risoluto. The musical content comes from descriptions and notations of rhythms used in Bali. Typical women's rice-pounding patterns go in and out of phase with each other, while men tap their own rhythms on the tub. The quartet uses many col legno (back of the bow) and snap pizzicato effects. The middle part of the movement is brief revisiting of the con dolore music. 
The con dolore centerpiece of the quartet has a sad, tentative mood with occasional sharp, bitter dissonant chords. 
The fourth movement, con precisione, extends the rhythmic patterns of the second movement and uses the same exotic bowing, pizzicato, and percussion effects. 
The final con dolore is, again, brief. The sad cello melody, dissonant chords, strummed pizzicato, and slithering high harmonics end the work in a highly exotic atmosphere.

(Click on a track title to listen)

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