Navarra Quartet take on ‘Love and Death’


Magnus Johnston, violin, Sascha Bota, viola, Brian O’Kane, cello and Marije Johnston, violin.

On the 17th July the Navarra Quartet release ‘Love and Death’ on Orchid Classics, profound themes that power artistic creation.

Joaquín Turina’s exotic and passionate La oración del torero (The bullfighter’s prayer) is an invigorating start to the album. Originally a work composed for four lutes in the 1920s, the arrangement for violin, viola and cello works beautifully. Strains of the Paso Doble, flamenco and other folkloric rhythms and also Andalusian melodies, ornament this modern-classical composition.

Inspiration for the work came from the composer’s visit to Madrid’s Plaza de toros de las Ventas, its bullfighting arena,and the chapel where bullfighters pray to the Virgin of the Dove and the Virgen of Guadalupe for protection.

La oración del torero has two recognisable and contrasting musical threads: one expressing the nationalistic pomp of the bullring, the other, the bullfighter’s prayer, the cello line expressing the toreador’s struggle to find peace and strength. The dream-like sequence of high, sweet strings in the concluding passage suggest that he does attain it.

Kurtág György’s Ligatura Y follows. In the late 1950s, György studied music in Paris under Oliver Messiaen and other leading modern composers. Known today for his musical fragments, György wrote Ligatura after watching children play. Both Ligatura Y and Arioso interrotto on the album are tantalisingly short and sweet and despite this, musically satiating. The more I think of it, they are like carefully crafted haiku poems.

Ligatura Y morphs seamlessly into Puccini’s single movement, I crisantemi. And who cannot fail to be moved by Puccini’s elegiac work dedicated to the Duke of Aosta who died of pneumonia aged forty-four. Puccini is said to have written it in one night. Consisting of two plaintive melodies in C sharp minor, the middle mournful theme for the first violin which sounds over pulsations in the viola, is particularly arresting. It took me a while to make the connection between what I was hearing with Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Puccini was obviously so satisfied with I crisantemi that he decided to use it again in Act IV of his opera, as the lovers cross the desert.

Leo Janácek, no stranger to writing opera, follows Puccini with his String Quartet No.1 Here I felt I needed to concentrate. Based on a novella by Tolstoy entitled The Kreutzer Sonata (inspired by Beethoven’s sonata of the same name), it is the tale of a married woman’s affair with a violinist. In Tolstoy’s oeuvre, music is ‘an incitement to adultery’ (Tolstoy). In the second movement you can hear the woman’s tiny, rapid steps to freedom as they quicken into a gypsy-like dance on the violin. The more languid third movement is interspersed with scratchy-sounding violins, repeated several times, perfectly evoking the husband’s increasing jealousy. This is a spellbinding piece.

Franz Schubert’s famous ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet in D minor wraps up the album. I have seen the work performed often at the Wigmore Hall and I was surprised how much I enjoyed Navarra’s version, whose delicate and exacting play imbue it with renewed freshness.

A hugely enjoyable and rich recording and one which makes me want to see the Navarra Quartet perform live!


Navarra Quartet’s Love and Death is out on Orchid Classics July 17th 2020.

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