Composers: Purcell, Locke, Haydn, Blow
Compositions: String Quartets
Performers: Kitgut Quartet
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HMM902313
In her note to period-instrument Kitgut Quartet’s latest release, musicologist Jeanne Roudet writes that “it was as a metaphor for conversation that chamber music developed in the 18th century”. She adds that the string quartet was then appreciated as a substitute for dialogue rather than as the “paragon of ‘pure music’” it would later become.
‘Tis too late to be wise: String quartets before the string quartet presents not only a series of discreet conversations in the form of quartets by English composers Purcell, Blow and Locke, and Joseph Haydn. The quartets are also in conversation with each other. And with the history of the string quartet, which has its beginnings in the chamber music of Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Telemann – if not in the 4-part viol consorts of Orlando Gibbons et al. Then there is the conversation among Kitgut’s members, as well as with other groups exploring the same territory to a lesser or greater degree – such as the Purcell Quartet and, most recently, the Emerson Quartet.
Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 71/2 in D is the still centre around which the fantasias, theatre music and suites by the 17th-century English composers swirl. More properly, it is yet another conversation: a stylistic one, in which rustic dances and “formless” fantasies are pitted against a nascent classical modernity. So there’s a lot going on here. What unifies these multiple conversations the one between Kitgut’s players: one that revives the spirit of the 18th-century Parisian salon, in its blend of wit, elegance, deep learning and, above all, improvisatory gusto. Diderot would have approved.