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They Might Be Giants

Looking back at the giants and geniuses of music history through the medium of the string quartet: Palestrina, Lasso, Castello, Bach, Mozart, Pleyel and more.

Hercules carrying the celestial sphere. Italian detail.

In music as in life, time moves ever forward—the present moment always looking to the future. But there is value in considering what came before. What was the foundation? What is the lineage and the mystery of the past. How is it all connected?

Tracing the roots of counterpoint

A wonderfully conceived program from Ensemble Aurora released this year on the Arcana label traces our musical roots with an exploration of the development of counterpoint. Titled, On the Shoulders of Giants, the recording builds a timeline of the  greats: Mozart, and before him Bach, and before him Castello, Corelli, Rosenmueller, Frescobaldi, and before them even, Orlando di Lasso and Palestrina.

Ensemble Aurora is a somewhat flexible ensemble—adding or subtracting players based on the needs of the repertory at hand. In this case, the whole program is performed by a finely tuned string quartet with violinists Enrico Gatti and Rossella Croce, violins; Sebastiano Airoldi, viola and Judith Maria Blomsterberg, cello.

The majority of composers included on this disc never composed for string quartet; the ensemble wasn’t prominent until the late 18th century and Joseph Haydn. Ensemble Aurora makes a point to say that their inspiration for the program did not necessarily stem out of a desire for early music authenticity. Instead, the pieces on this recording are in large part arrangements of vocal works or keyboard compositions or of otherwise flexibly scored pieces. 

Ensemble Aurora performs these pre-string-quartet genre Renaissance pieces in their quartet configuration precisely because they represent the roots of the string quartet repertory. The revival of classical antiquity and the rebirth of Platonic philosophies and Pythagorean principles during the Renaissance was reflected in music in the developing counterpoint of the 15th and 16th centuries, the significance of which extended through the baroque and well into the proper 18th-century string quartet heyday of Mozart and Haydn.

This hour-long recording passes with hardly noticing the time. And then you want to hit the repeat button. Rest assured, there’s lots of pleasure to be had in just putting on the CD and listening, but this is one of those recordings that’s really worth the whole package. You’ll really miss a lot if you only download the tracks, so make sure you get the booklet too. The essay with the program contains more than biographical information about the composers. Rather, you’ll get a sense of the DNA of the music and likely find yourself connecting these particular composers in very a different way.

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The String Quartets of Ignaz Pleyel

We can extend the line from Mozart and Haydn a little further with another new recording—this one, the string quartets of Ignaz Pleyel, performed by the Pleyel Quartett  Köln and released by CPO records in 2014.

The members of the Pleyel Quartet are some of today’s biggest champions of the composer’s music. The members include Marie Deller, Andreas Gerhardus, Milena Schuster and Ingeborg Scheerer. High praise is due these performers: the playing is clean and clear. It’s easy and naïve—in the good sense of the word. They use almost no vibrato at times to great effect—something that can only be achieved with a tight ensemble and impeccable intonation.

Pleyel wrote around 60, but maybe close to 80 string quartets, depending on how you count or catalog them. Most of those quartets were composed in the ten years between 1782-92.

Pleyel was a student of Haydn, so its no wonder that, like Haydn, Pleyel wrote so many string quartets. Pleyel completed his studies with Haydn in 1776, and soon his career took off. By one count, Pleyel had 250 publishers who published some 2,000 editions of his work. It turns out that Pleyel’s music was very popular not only in Europe but in America as well. Many copies of his quartets landed on the other side of the pond, and the 19th-century whaling port of Nantucket, Massachusetts even formed a Pleyel Society in 1822.

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Janelle Davis

Janelle Davis is a violinist and performer with period instrument ensembles throughout the United States. She is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University, Bloomington where she specializes in early music.

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