Musica Fiorita explores early string quartets

Franz Joseph Haydn may be the father of the string quartet. But who was the grandfather? Musica Fiorita presents some candidates in this program of pre-Classical string quartets.

The combination of two violins, viola, and cello was not common during the Baroque. Most instrumental ensembles included a basso continuo (keyboard plus cello) to fill out the bass and harmony.

But Haydn didn’t invent the string quartet. As this release shows, there were others exploring this instrumental combination.

The earliest examples come from Giovanni Bononcini’s Varii fiori of 1669. Bononcini’s primarily concerned with counterpoint. Each of the four-stringed instrument has its own line.

And in one of the pieces (included in this recording0, he instructs the players to play only a quattro, without basso continuo. Bononcini’s work may be an outlier, but there it is.

The release includes four works from Quattro Auartetti a due Violini, Viola, e Basso by Alessandro Scarlatti. The title makes no mention of a basso continuo, and that’s how the Musica Fiorita performs the music.

Like Bononcini, Scarlatti uses the ensemble to create complex four-part counterpoint. Adding a harpsichord to fill in chords would only muddy the sound. The four sonatas work quite well, with Scarlatti’s contrapuntal prowess clearly delineated.

Perhaps Bononcini is the great-grandfather of the quartet, and Scarlatti the grandfather. So what does that make Maddalena Lombardini? Her two quartets presented here were published in 1769, the same year as Haydn’s Op. 9.

I’d say Lombardini might the aunt. And the fun aunt at that. Her two quartets are light and breezy, midway between style galante and the formal Classical Era. And they generally place all four instruments on equal footing. So why aren’t they being programmed today?

The Musica Fiorita perform with instruments of the period. Their ensemble sound is quite warm. And their phrasing is both authentic and musical, bringing out the finer details in the scores.

The Evolution of the String Quartet
Music by Giovanni Bononcini, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Maddalena Lombardini
Musica Fiorita
Pan Classics

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