Monday, July 21, 2014

The Spanish Mozart, ReDISCovered

Among our collection of CDs. my husband found a disc of string quartets by the Basque composer Juan Arriaga--the Spanish Mozart, so called because he was born on the same date as Mozart (January 27), was a child prodigy, and died too young (19!; ten days before his twentieth birthday). As I recall, I bought it at Wichita's east side Border's bookstore (cheap). ClassicsToday reviewed the performance:

Sadly, it doesn’t take much room to sketch out the short life of little-known Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio Arriaga y Balzola. He was born in 1806, wrote an octet at age 11, composed his first opera when he was 13, entered the Paris Conservatory at age 15, and had the three works heard here published when he was 18. He died in 1826 at age 20.

The promise that he showed as a composer did not go completely unnoticed during his lifetime (Bellini championed his music), but very little of his music endures in the modern era. Aside from these quartets and a symphony recorded by Charles Mackerras for Hyperion, his work is largely lost to the sands of time. But these lovely quartets, given fresh and impassioned readings by the New Vlach Quartet, should make us aware of what he could have achieved if only he had lived longer. They are sparkling, emotionally mature, and beautifully shaped works that fully explore the nuances of each voice within the quartet. (The balance of sound is spread equally between the four players as well, and Avenira has done a fine job of creating a vibrant atmosphere.) Bravo to the New Vlach Quartet, and to Avenira, for this release. This is truly a treat, and I can only wish there could be more.

We have found the music and the performances of these quartets to be melodic, playful, charming, and beautiful. Arriaga was born in Bilboa on January 27, 1806 and went to study in Paris when he was 16 years old. He composed these quartets that same year and they were published in 1824. Perhaps Arriaga studied too hard at the Paris Conservatoire because he became ill -- exhaustion and tuberculosis or some other lung problem causing his death. He was buried (like Mozart) in an unmarked grave, but in the Montmartre cemetery.

One way that he is not like Mozart is in his surviving output, which as the review above notes, is small. Mozart had already written three operas by the time he was 14 and by age 20 had written his five violin concertos, several symphonies, his church sonatas, piano concertos, etc. It is very sad that Arriaga did not have the opportunity to compose more music--these three works certainly show that he had much to give. More about Arriaga here.

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