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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Exploring the CD Collection #13

Resurrecting a series....

Alexander Borodin: String quartet #2 in D major
Bedrich Smetana: String quartet #1 in E minor, "From My LIfe"
The Cleveland Quartet

As I've noted in this space before, as much as I love classical music, there are great whacks of it with which I am almost completely unfamiliar. By far the largest of these realms is the giant category known as "chamber music". I've always adored the large-scale symphonic works -- as might be expected by my now-nearly twenty year obsession with Hector Berlioz -- but the smaller scale works for small ensembles just seem to always elude my interest.

Actually, "elude my interest" isn't even a fair way to put it. It's not that I'm not interested in chamber music, it's that my other musical interests so outweigh my putative chamber music interest that I just end up continually putting the chamber stuff off for another day. Well, I've started to slowly rectify that a bit. After all, it's not as if I'm totally adverse to the small ensemble; much of Celtic music is performed by groups of precisely the scale one normally encounters in classical chamber music.

I've started with the string quartet, which is arguably the "basic" chamber ensemble, in that more music has been composed for the string quartet, much of it by the great masters, than anyone else. I actually got to hear a local string quartet live at my church's Christmas Eve service, and I was struck by the warmth of the ensemble, the singing tone that comes from the seamless blending of four distinct voices.

Why start my quartet collection with this disc, with one quartet each by Borodin and Smetana? Well, I can't lie: it was cheap, for one thing. Budget-price CDs are a good thing. For another, I want to save, for now, the "Mount Olympus" of string quartets (the ones by Beethoven, especially the later ones, of which I have heard naught but superlatives over the years). I've always responded well to the Russian Nationalist composers of the nineteenth century, and I already had a small familiarity with the Borodin quartet in D owing to its use in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. (Yeah, so what? The Bond girl was a cellist in that movie. It makes sense.) And yes, the Borodin quartet is a wonderful example of Russian Romanticism in music. I've already listened to the Borodin twice. It's absolutely captivating.

I've only listened to the Smetana partway through, so I can't comment much on it as of this point, except to note that it too has been used in an espionage movie: Sneakers. Small world, eh?

One thing of special interest with regard to this particular recording: at the time it was made, in 1990, the Cleveland Quartet was performing with the "Paganini quartet" instruments. These were four instruments -- two violins, a viola, and a cello -- owned by the great violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini in the 1800s, and made by none other than Antonio Stradivari in the 1600s. (These instruments are now being used by the Tokyo String Quartet.) Of these four instruments, it's the viola that is of particular interest to me.

This is the viola that, upon its acquisition, inspired Paganini to commission a work for viola and orchestra from Hector Berlioz. The resulting work, Harold in Italy, was Berlioz's second symphony. Paganini never played it, judging the work not virtuosic enough; I've always found it surprising that Paganini didn't realize in the first place that Berlioz was not particularly well suited to a concerted work. But even though Paganini didn't perform the work, he did eventually hear it -- and judged it so fine that he gifted Berlioz with 20,000 francs. Without that monetary gift, it's unlikely that Berlioz would ever have composed Romeo et Juliet -- which is my favorite Berlioz work.

So when I was listening to this CD, I was listening to the very viola that set in motion, almost 170 years ago, a chain of events that resulted in two of Berlioz's greatest masterpieces.

There's just so much synchronicity to be found in the following of classical music.

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