The panorama of 18th century Italian instrumental music is less arid than one thinks. This is true, at least as far as string quartets are concerned. Cherubini composed six, Donizetti nine- teen, Bazzini (Puccini's teacher at the Milan Conservatory) wrote six and, during the last thirty years of the century, Busoni produced two, Verdi one and even Puccini composed various pieces, including a recently ‘reviewed' Quartet. However in the majority of cases, there are pieces that can be traced to the composers' student years and, as such are rather scholastic. At the same time they do show the completeness of preparation that the young composers underwent, im- posed by their respective teachers, who encouraged the study of chamber music literature of the classical Viennese period, even though many were attracted to melodrama. The lack of instru- mental technique that they are sometimes criticised for even today, seems to be commonplace because the comparison with German contemporary composers is misleading as these came from a completely different tradition. Antonio Melchiori's (1827-1897) captivating transcription for string quartet from Rigoletto, that we hear on this CD, indirectly but concretely confirms the value of Verdi's training where, as revealed in the Quartet in E minor, he also uses counterpoint. The arrangement for a solo instrument, particularly the piano, or for a chamber ensemble, from the most famous operatic scores, was routine procedure in the 19th century. This contributed to the popularity and therefore its extended use. Liszt's paraphrases for the piano by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi (including Rigoletto), Wagner etc and Muzio Clementi's transcriptions for piano, flute, violin and cello of Mozart's last six symphonies are further evidence. Melchiori was also active in transcribing many of Verdi's works - Aroldo, Masked Ball, Traviata, Trovatore and especially Rigoletto - for solo flute or violin as well as string quartet, sometimes substituting the second violin with flute. Guided by a fine musical taste and a well developed instrumental technique, Melchiori selected more significant moments from Rigoletto, conferring on these a chamber quality that Verdi would call the most suited, when the scene on stage is aided by the dramatic and psychological quality of the moment.The distribution of the orchestral and vocal parts is always done well, especially where the timbre is concerned. In the Prelude, expertly interpreted by La Scala Quartet, the arrangement of the quartet harmony accentuates the original darkness of the motive of the curse. Another success is the instrumental rendition of "Questa o quella per me pari sono" (I\2), where the Duke's melody is given, not to the violin as one might have expected, but to the cello. As it unfolds, the ‘lightness' of the sound seems to accentuate his fatuous character. Melchiori's choice of the viola to represent Gilda's heartbreaking expression of the deceitful meeting with that "giovine ..bello e fatale" (handsome and dangerous young man) is a refined one, while the accompaniment of the other three strings accentuates the expression of her suffering (II\10). But La Scala Quartet, above all their other interpretations of Melchiori's adaptations, give of their best in the final number (III\10) with perfect nuances in the climax of the Gilda-Rigoletto duet as well as in the abrupt and tragic ending. We know everything by now about the origin of the Quartet in E minor. Verdi and his wife moved to Naples at the end of 1872 for some revivals of Aida and Don Carlos at the San Carlo Theatre. Stolz' indisposition caused their stay to be prolonged until the following spring and Verdi was inspired to fill his many idle hours by writing a Quartet, which he considered "senza importanza" (without importance). It was first played to a private audience on 1 April 1873 in the foyer of the Hotel di Napoli where the couple were staying. Verdi at first obstinately refused to publish it, only giving his consent to Ricordi in 1876. The value of the Quartet lies in the fact of it being witness to the unfolding of the composer's career, from his years of study to his masterpieces of the 70s. Included here are structures in 4\4, his return to sonata form in the first movement, the three part form of the two central movements and the fugue in the last movement is a consequence of the teaching of Vincenzo Lavigna (who exacted canons and fugues, fugues and canons from his pupils). Verdi elaborated themes with confidence and ability, the modula- tions and counterpoint which were already part of his mastery and artistic resources and it all culminated with works like Requiem, Otello and Falstaff .
Ettore Napoli (translated by Desiree Bonfiglio)