Most classical music reference books contain a brief entry for Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga. They’ll mention that he wrote several noteworthy orchestral and chamber works in the 1820s, before his promising career was cut short by an early death at age 19. They’ll also mention that Arriaga has been called “The Spanish Mozart.”
It would stand to reason that “The Spanish Mozart” would have a higher profile, but Arriaga’s music, although not entirely neglected, has nevertheless resided well outside the standard repertoire.
Recently, the Modigliani Quartet has championed one of Arriaga’s works — the String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Major — to widespread acclaim.
Violinist Philippe Bernhard says the third string quartet is a fine
example of Arriaga’s mastery as well as indicative of his youthful enthusiasm.
“What we can attribute to Arriaga’s youth is the perpetual brightness and joyful spirit of the fast movements,” he says by email from Europe. “Arriaga was extremely talented, and we enjoy thinking of how his writing might have evolved if he had lived longer.”
On Sunday at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, the Modigliani Quartet performs Arriaga’s third quartet, in addition to works by Ernst von Dohnányi and Maurice Ravel.
In the pastoral second movement of the Arriaga piece, the composer creates the sense of a cloudburst in the countryside.
“Indeed, the central part of this movement is a real musical rainstorm,” Bernhard says. “Arriaga uses every tool he has at his disposal: strong contrasts of dynamics, tremolos and an almost conflictual dialog between the cello and the first violin. The center of the quartet (second violin and viola) paints this stormy atmosphere.”
Dohnányi is another composer worthy of wider recognition. His String Quartet No. 3 in A Minor features an “andante religioso” slow movement of striking delicacy. It compares well with any slow movement by Dohnányi’s more famous contemporaries.
Bernhard attributes the composer’s relative obscurity to mostly bad luck and bad timing.
“Dohnányi was an extremely complete musician, pianist, conductor and teacher, but had a troubled trajectory,” Bernhard says, explaining that Dohnányi’s career in his native Hungary was unstable, and he never quite caught on big in America after expatriating.
“I believe he’s actually even less famous in Europe than in your country,” Bernhard says.
Juxtaposed with these two under-performed works is Ravel’s celebrated String Quartet in F Major. It’s among the pinnacles of modern chamber music, and most of the top string quartets have performed or recorded it over the years.
With a touch of Gallic pride, Bernhard says that the Modigliani Quartet has the ideal pedigree for Ravel’s idiom.
“We believe that music is extremely related to the language, and playing Ravel feels like speaking our native language. It’s also the fruit of a certain French tradition, and the teachers of our teachers were musicians who played this piece while Ravel was still alive,” Bernhard says. “We hope they transmitted to us some of the spirit of this wonderful period for arts in France, at the very beginning of the 20th century.”
After one of the group’s first rehearsals in 2003, the musicians went to a Modigliani exhibition at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris. They discovered both a kindred spirit and a name for their quartet. The artist exemplifies the goals of the foursome: violinists Bernhard and Loïc Rio, violist Laurent Marfaing and cellist François Kieffer.
“We were very impressed by the strong personality of Modigliani’s art,” Bernhard says. “We chose to name our quartet after him because of what we consider to be the main challenge of a string quartet: to acquire through work, stability and time a real sound signature.”