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Program Notes: Vocal Composers

String Quartet in C Major  (1920) by Engelbert Humperdinck  (1854-1921)
Italian Serenade (1887) by Hugo Wolf  (1860-1903)
Il Tramonto (1914) by Ottorino Respighi  (1879-1936) with  Krista River, mezzo soprano  
Crisantemi (1890) by  Giacomo Puccini  (1856-1924)
Quartet in E Minor (1873) by Giuseppe Verdi  (1813-1901)

November 12, 2011, at Duke

Notes by Jonathan Bagg:

It would be hard to find musical genres more different in purpose and effect than opera and string quartet. Passion, intrigue, triumph, and pathos are the language of opera, and composers who speak it have not always taken to the quartet’s quieter instrumental rhetoric, which emphasizes the witty interaction of ideas. Yet tonight’s program has great examples of quartet writing by three composers who made their living by the stage: Verdi, Puccini, and Humperdinck. Hugo Wolf wrote songs almost exclusively; his “Italian Serenade” is a perfect anomaly. Respighi was primarily a symphonist, but in tonight’s “Il Tramonto,” he seems entirely at home in the language of Italian grand opera.

Verdi took advantage of a hiatus in rehearsals for Aida in 1873 to compose his only string quartet. Operatic language and gestures permeate the work, especially in the overture-like first movement and the third movement’s brief cello aria. Yet what strikes one is how well his control of line and voice-leading translates to the texture of the quartet. After the first performance, Verdi’s humble assessment was: “I don’t know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it’s a Quartet!” Perhaps it was inevitable that he succumb to writing a fugue in the last movement; when would he have another chance? In any case it is an impressive display of counterpoint that still manages to wind up in thrilling fashion.

The string quartet works of Puccini, Humperdinck, and Wolf are also isolated forays. Puccini’s Crisantemi is a mere post card, in which we glimpse the powerful young voice of a composer who eventually held the world in thrall. Wolf struggled to write a string quartet as a young man; his Italian Serenade from several years later came more easily. It bubbles with the rhythm of tarantella, supercharged with romantic urgency, but skirting the dark emotional corners where Wolf often dwelt. Humperdinck’s string quartet is from 1920, his last year. It hardly matters now that it belongs stylistically thirty years earlier with his opera Hansel and Gretel. It is a work from another era, Wagner’s heyday, that is strangely unperturbed by the convulsions of the new century.

Finally, Respighi’s Il Tramonto sets an Italian translation of Shelley’s poem (The Sunset), in which lovers unite and are separated by death in single evening. The work is a uniquely successful condensation of operatic passion into a chamber music setting. One easily forgets while listening that the forces assembled are not large, so big is the tragedy of the words and music. Though Respighi did not excel at opera, one wonders if he might have, on hearing this piece.