The Strad Issue: January 2008
Musicians: Leipzig Quartet, Ruth Ziesak (soprano)
Composer: Puccini, Respighi, Wagner, Humperdinck, Verdi

It was an inspired idea to put together a programme of string quartet music by composers who, with the exception of Respighi, are celebrated almost exclusively for opera, a genre from the opposite side of the musical spectrum. The most familiar piece here is Puccini’s Crisantemi, a post-Wagnerian exercise in chromaticism, somewhat over-ripe for pure chamber music but hard to expunge from the memory, especially in a performance as sensitively shaped and meticulously balanced as this. The real Wagner piece (one of a series of miniature Albumblätter he produced from the 1840s onwards) is a mere minute-and-a-half-long, its distillation of Parsifal-like harmonic suspensions sounding far more convincing in these intimate surroundings than any of the other pieces here.

Verdi’s String Quartet is surprisingly effective, all the more so for adopting a Mendelssohnian sweetness and clarity a million miles away from the likes of La traviata and Rigoletto. The Leipzigers play up the music’s Germanic stylistic antecedents with such devoted care and insight – the finale sounds in places like middle-period Beethoven – that anyone coming to this work for the first time could not possibly guess its composer. Humperdinck’s three-movement String Quartet also blatantly uses Beethoven as a stylistic springboard (via Mendelssohn), so much so that it emerges almost as an exercise in neo-Classicism. Respighi’s heavenly Il tramonto, a ‘lyric poem’ (based on Shelley) for soprano and string quartet, shifts the stylistic points of reference forward to Richard Strauss and early Schoenberg. Once again the Leipzig Quartet sets the emotional temperature at precisely the right setting, scoring interpretative points over most rivals by never overindulging the music’s natural opulence. Atmospheric, well balanced sound too.