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8.572463 - ISASI, A.: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Isasi Quartet) - Nos. 0 and 2

Andrés Isasi (1890–1940)
String Quartets • 1


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 ‘Ornitofonía’ 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 (this disc being the first in a series of three). 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)
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)

Two other short pieces for string quartet:

Preludio Jinete de abril, Op 51, No 1 in A major (1934)
Scherzetto in F minor, No Op

The String Quartet No 0 was completed at the start of 1908 and performed on 2 December that year at the Sociedad Filarmonica de Bilbao. Although Isasi chose not to include it among the chronological sequence of his quartets (hence the posthumous numbering), he did not withdraw the score and it remains as an attractive instance of his earliest music in all its various influences—particularly those of Grieg and Dvořák.

The first movement opens with a theme by turns ruminative and capricious, at length complemented by one whose wistful elegance soon takes on greater expressive force. After a short codetta, the compact development explores more equivocal regions—a surprisingly florid cadenza-like passage for violin leading into a largely unaltered reprise, from where the music heads into a coda that provides a surprisingly vehement conclusion. The second movement continues the mood of thoughtful melancholy, its initial theme having something of a folk inflection to its easeful progress (the movement is in two parts, each of which is repeated, prior to a brief coda). The third movement, marked Berceuse, is a leisurely intermezzo that features particularly felicitous writing for violins—with a slightly more animated trio and subtly enriched harmonies when the initial theme returns. The finale begins with a regretful introduction that soon makes way for the main movement, in which a livelier idea is contrasted with another of the composer’s characteristically wistful themes. These constitute an exposition that is duly repeated, after which a rhapsodic development looks back to the introduction before taking both themes through a varied reprise, then on to a coda that brings the whole work to an affecting close.

The Second String Quartet was completed in October 1920. Next to the earlier work, it is more symphonic in manner: indeed, Isasi reused the first movement in his incomplete Third Symphony while the third movement found its way into his Second Suite. The present work had its première with the Isasi Quartet on 3 June 2010.

The first movement is a substantial structure that opens with a decisive gesture on all four instruments, before continuing with an impetuous theme that evinces no mean rhythmic agility. Its successor is more relaxed in its unfolding, before a substantial development draws on aspects of both themes prior to arriving unexpectedly at a passage in which the opening gesture is transformed into a sombre dialogue between the players. From here the music regains its momentum towards a curtailed reprise of the first theme then an expressively heightened version of its successor, out of which a brusque coda suddenly erupts only to fade away in musing uncertainty. The second movement commences with one of the composer’s most searching themes that unfolds with great subtlety, at length heading into a more emotionally varied section that touches upon some of the uncertainties from the previous movement, before returning to the initial poise then continuing on to a raptly inward close. The third movement, marked Intermezzo, unfolds in a mood of genial humour that persists in the vigorously contrapuntal music which follows apace. Both ideas are then elaborated, before a central section that consists of a more earnest fugal interplay between the instruments and which ventures into overtly chromatic territory. In time the initial music resumes, its genial and contrapuntal ideas now interwoven on the way to a pointedly rhetorical ending. The finale begins with a brief though hesitant introduction, before embarking on a resolute discourse, a hint of strenuousness in its first theme offset by the more relaxed manner of that which follows. A sizable development seems to allude back to the introductory phrase, while the ensuing reprise elaborates on the main ideas accordingly, now also with a tendency towards major-key affirmation. This duly leads on to a coda that seems poised to return to the opening hesitancy, but this is denied by the decisive final gesture.

Richard Whitehouse

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