About this Recording
8.572462 - ISASI, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 3 (Isasi Quartet) - Nos. 1 and 5

Andrés Isasi (1890–1940)
String Quartets • 3


Among the more obscure composers from the early twentieth century, Andrés Isasi (y Linares) was born in Bilbao on 18 October 1890. He developed a love of music from his grandfather, with whom he went to live after the premature death of his parents, while studying piano and composition with Unceta. When he was only eighteen, two recitals of his Grieg-influenced music received praise from critics and public. Feeling the need to travel, he moved to Berlin in 1909 where he attended classes with Karl Kämpf and Engelbert Humperdinck (the latter a composer then held in the highest esteem)—in the process receiving extensive instruction in the writing of larger symphonic forms. Isasi was already a prolific composer of songs, but now he followed the trail blazed by such older contemporaries as José María Usandizaga and Jesús Guridi in turning to the genre of the symphonic poem as the means to introduce himself to Bilbao audiences on his return there in 1914.

Public response to such overtly Germanic music, however, was lukewarm and Isasi, taciturn and unworldly by nature, retreated to the family home in Algorta, where he was able to compose in relative seclusion. While his music received hearings in Madrid and other Spanish cities over the next decade, he was to enjoy greater success abroad—notably in Budapest, where his choral work Angelus was performed in 1930 and the Second Symphony [recorded on Naxos 8.557584] a year later. Never in need of money, and in turn a generous supporter of artists from the Basque region who worked in a variety of media, he continued in his music to reflect a love of Germanic culture as well as his lifelong religious conviction. His passionate interest in nature is embodied in the ʻOrnitofonía’ that he assembled over many years: a study of the songs of birds and their many variants, such as could also be used as a creative resource for his music. Along with two symphonies and two orchestral suites [the second is also on Naxos 8.557584], his output includes several symphonic poems, a piano concerto, music for piano and for choir, a large body of songs, a guitar suite, a sonata for violin and piano, and eight string quartets. He died, largely forgotten and at a time of traumatic upheaval throughout Spain, in Algorta on 6 April 1940.

Only two of Isasi’s string quartets seem to have been given a public performance in his lifetime. Yet this was a medium that clearly held considerable appeal for the composer, as is evident from the works detailed below:

Op. 83, No. 0 in E minor (1908)
Op. 11, No. 1 in G major (1911, rev. 1914)
Op. 27, No. 2 in A minor (1920)
Op. 30, No. 3 in E minor (1921) (probably unfinished; only the first three movements survive)
Op. 31, No. 4 in D major (1921)
Op. 32, No. 5 in C minor (1921)
No Op., No. 6 (probably unfinished; only a fragment of the scherzo survives)
No Op., No. 7 (probably unfinished; only fragments of the first and second movements, and the third movement, survive)

Isasi arrived in Berlin with the intention of discarding most of the works he had written earlier in Bilbao. What became the First String Quartet was probably written in the last months of 1910 and completed in early 1911. The following January he returned to Bilbao for the wedding of his sister Pilar and where he deposited the score at the Society of Quartets, which duly gave the première of the work at the Sociedad Filarmonica on 3 May 1911. Isasi dedicated it to Edith Humperdinck, eldest daughter of the composer, who participated frequently in the gatherings her father organized with students in his magnificent villa of Grünewald. A second version of the First Quartet, with a new third movement, was presented in Stockholm on 23 March 1914 with the Quartet Ruthström (this recording is of the second version). Julius Ruthström had been a favoured pupil of Joseph Joachim, violinist and confidante of Brahms, and it is probable Isasi met Ruthström in Berlin.

The first movement opens with an equable theme which also brings a leisurely contrapuntal interplay between the instruments. Its limpid successor unfolds initially over a pizzicato bass, before this flowers into nobly wrought polyphony. The music in due course takes on a livelier manner, but there is no formal development or even reprise as such—rather an incremental intensification where both themes are constantly varied towards the tranquil conclusion. The second movement begins atmospherically with an expressive theme that makes resourceful use of the quartet texture, as does the restive central section with its initially sombre interplay between viola and cello, building to a forceful culmination which soon subsides into a subtly varied yet no less intricate resumption of the earlier music—expanding across the quartet and on to its winsome close. The third movement is an animated Intermezzo with a distinct folk-like character, to which the central trio brings contrast with its whimsical motion and rustic tinge—after which, the Intermezzo resumes a lively and now truncated course. A sustained unison chord launches the finale, whose amiable main theme is offset by the hymn-like idea which ensues. There is purposeful development of both these themes, then a varied and heightened reprise whose increasing pensiveness is denied by the decisive concluding bars.

Dedicated to Brahms (whose C minor Quartet is one of the few scores to have survived from Isasi’s library), the Fifth String Quartet had its première at the Philharmonic Society of Bilbao on 2 December 1942, some two years after the composer’s death. It comes at the end of an intensive period of quartet writing, Nos. 2–5 all originating at this time, during which he made a detailed study of such pieces as the Fourth Quartet by Ewald Strässer and the Second Quartet by Bartók (both published in 1920)—also making a piano transcription of the latter.

The first movement commences with an anxious and even agitated theme, which finds due contrast in the gently undulating theme that follows with its eloquent interplay between the violins. The initial theme then returns in a varied and often rhetorical development, moving directly into the reprise which once more builds no mean impetus before the second theme is recalled in hardly less affecting terms—its demeanour holding good into the restrained coda. The second movement is centred on a lyrical yet also wistful melody that unfolds easefully across the quartet, touching upon deeper and more equivocal emotions as it proceeds. There is a brief but forceful climax, after which the music continues with its pensive discourse and on to the rapt conclusion. The third movement is an angular scherzo whose use of pizzicato recalls the comparable movement from Ravel’s String Quartet, though not the rhythmically sturdy idea which does service as a trio, before the main theme resumes its dextrous course. The finale begins with incisive exchanges between the instruments, though these have barely coalesced into a theme before a second and more thoughtful idea is underway. Both of these themes are then restated as part of a rhapsodic development whose underlying momentum is maintained over the varied reprise, then into a coda that brings about the affirmative ending.

Written in 1917, a year after Isasi’s marriage to Inés Olascoaga Amann, the Violin Sonata had its première in Spain during 1917 with the violinist Raimundo Urio. Much of the thematic material has tangible links to Basque melodies and songs, though there is also an element of Richard Strauss, whom Isasi considered the most significant composer of this period.

The first movement opens uncertainly with a halting gesture on the piano to which the violin responds with discursive and even improvisatory arabesques. The main Allegro is launched with a lilting and folk-like theme which is complemented by the increasingly demonstrative idea that follows, then both themes are drawn into a leisurely development which itself has recourse to the manner of the introduction—in the process building to a forceful culmination. A cadenza-like passage for the violin provides a heady link into the reprise, with its relatively straightforward handling of both themes prior to a brief coda that returns to the first theme in a mood of ruffled poise. The central movement is a Romance in the composer’s most elegant and confiding mood, its initial piano entry taken up by the violin before the dialogue grows suddenly more impulsive. This upsurge continues through to a demonstrative climax, after which the main theme returns to take the music on to its ruminative close. The finale affords the greatest contrast with its incisive opening theme, characterized by some equally lively piano writing. A second theme is more rhapsodic and even-tempered, though its predecessor is seldom out of the picture entirely and eventually resumes the foreground for a reprise in which the second theme also received its due on the way to the brief yet impassioned coda.

Richard Whitehouse
with thanks to Karsten Dobers)

Note: The cover painting, Bersolaris (sic) by Valentín de Zubiaurre, depicts two bertsolaris performing a traditional Basque bertso, a rhyming song improvised on a given topic to an existing melody.

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