Ruperto Chapí was the chameleon of 19th century Spanish music. His greatest gift was to synthesise diverse influences and styles into attractive pieces more remarkable for energy and compositional skill than for individuality. Maybe we're too prone to praise innovators, leaders rather than consolidators of fashion. Certainly few composers wear borrowed clothes with Chapí's ingenuity or aplomb. Then again, intelligence, wit and imagination are rare enough commodities; and whatever his limitations, the composer of La revoltosa had enough of those and to spare.
The reputation of these String Quartets, written late in Chapí's career, has intrigued those of us who know him almost exclusively through his zarzuelas. By 1903, when No.1 was written for the Cuarteto Francés, much of his best stage work was behind him; but judging from contemporary reaction - as reported both in Luis G. Iberni's sleeve note here, and his authoritative study of Chapí's life and work - the Quartets excited and divided critical opinion to an unexpected degree.
Thanks to the Brodsky Quartet we finally have the chance to find out what it was that made madrileño music lovers a century ago sit up and take notice. Chapí's foray into a genre which, since the time of Haydn, has been the chosen vessel for the deepest thoughts of so many great and not-so-great composers must have come as a surprise. Even so, in their consciously Beethovenian ambition, their virtuosity and unpredictable alternation of sun and shade, they do come as something of a revelation.
Chapí was not of course the first stage composer to try his hand at a String Quartet. In No.1, Verdi's sole example comes to mind by reason of Chapí's comparably assured technique and focus. Like the Italian, he is content to take the expressive possibilities of the form as he finds them, but arresting gestures, good tunes and theatrical contrasts keep us highly entertained throughout the work, which culminates in an energised Finale combining zortzico and jota rhythms. The whole may not equal the sum of the parts, but this is living music, mainstream European in language but - unlike his rival Bretón's more sombrely classical chamber pieces - recognisably Spanish in accent.
Its successors share No.1's four-movement structure as well as its boldness and fire. No.2, written for the Czech Quartet - Josef Suk on second violin and Oscar Nedbal on viola - is more nationalist in tone. It begins with some delicate alhambrismo, Aida embracing Thaïs in a poetic Andalusian nocturne. The later movements, with their unpredictable tonal shifts, are equally attractive, witty and elusive, even if the pizzicato ostinato of the third movement is a little too obvious an exercise in Beethovenian bizarrerie.
The brooding first movement of the more classically compact No.3 is Franckian in feeling, whilst the epicurean melancholy of the Larghetto recalls early Debussy - though the pulsing Allegro finale, thematically integrated with the earlier movements, is much more Mediterranean in temper. The harmonic simplicity of No.4 initially strikes a contrasted pose, Dvorakian in melodic cut, easy amplitude and harmonic procedures. Its urbane Allegretto is interrupted by a surprisingly morose, world-weary lento, stamping a more personal dimension on a work otherwise richer in romantic suavity than depth of feeling.
It would be folly to pretend that the unearthing of Chapí's Four rewrites the established order of the String Quartet. Intelligently varied, well stocked with musical and technical interest, their very diversity works against a compelling sense of emotional through-line - at this level underlying personality does count, and they owe much to Beethoven and his successors. Again, they are ambitiously structured, and despite Chapí's easy formal grasp some movements are thematically lightweight enough to feel overlong. No matter. This is music which gives a deal of pleasure, plenty of food for thought, music which is always alive, music for which it is impossible not to feel growing affection, even love.
Which makes it all the more stupid that nobody - neither the production company Autor, nor the Quartet's own online sales outlet - seems to care enough about this important issue to offer any distribution outside Spain, even in the Brodskys' native UK. After a century of undeserved neglect, Chapí's String Quartets - and the Brodskys themselves - deserve a better deal.
© Christopher Webber 2003