Thursday, January 26, 2017

Quartetto di Cremona Returns with Another Late Beethoven Quartet

The Quartetto di Cremona (violinists Cristiano Gualco and Paolo Andreoli, violist Simone Gramaglia, and cellist Giovanni Scaglione) made its San Francisco debut this past April in a recital in Herbst Theatre arranged by San Francisco Performances. Yesterday they made a return visit, this time to the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura) to give a concert in conjunction with the recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Nothing about the program was explicitly associated with the occasion. Rather, the concert was conceived as an opportunity to remember the many musicians who had perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

The major work at Quartetto di Cremona’s debut recital was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. Many would call this the most difficult (for both performers and listeners) of those “late period” quartets that Beethoven composed at the very end of his life. Last night, however, the quartet performed the one other quartet that rivals Opus 131 in difficulty, the Opus 132 in A minor. The usual reason given for the challenges of Opus 131 is that Beethoven conceived it as seven sections to be played without interruption; but the underlying structures of those sections are all relatively familiar, particularly the theme-and-variations that occupies the center of the entire structure. Opus 132, on the other hand, is far more ambiguous in its approach to structure; and even its basic rhythmic patterns seem to deny the listener the opportunity to settle into predictable consistency. Performers must also confront ambiguities in the pitch relationships that almost defiantly challenge each musician to figure out how to find his/her pitch on every note.

Fortunately, Quartetto di Cremona rose impressively to every challenge that Beethoven set for the performers. As a result (and with the help of a few introductory remarks by Gualco) there were senses of both coherence and direction in yesterday evening’s execution that helped to disperse Beethoven’s many patches of foggy ambiguity. This was particularly the case in the clarity the group brought to the execution of the middle (third) movement, which, as Gualco observed, is the longest single movement of chamber music that Beethoven ever wrote. (Yes, it is longer than the Opus 133 “Große Fuge.”)

Gualco’s command of English had a bit of difficulty explaining that this third movement had a title, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode). However, if he stumbled over Beethoven’s words, the music itself serenely alternated between the sort of stillness that creates the illusion that time is standing still, alternating with sections depicting strength returning to the ailing body. Most effective was the group’s decision to play the initial statement of that stillness without vibrato. (Beethoven only marked the passage “sotto voce.”) Indeed, the rhetoric was so intense that the group chose to pause longer than usual before moving on to the following “Alla marcia.”

The first half of the program presented two works, one on either side (chronologically) of Beethoven’s Opus 132. They opened with the later work, the Capriccio that is the third of the four pieces for string quartet that Felix Mendelssohn published as his Opus 81. This served well as a “warm-up” for the evening, allowing the ensemble to introduce themselves through rhetoric that was both energetic and positive.

The Mendelssohn quartet was followed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 465 quartet in C major. This quartet has been given the nickname “Dissonance,” due to the 22 measures of the opening Adagio. The cello begins the opening movement with a clear series of Cs, but the other three instruments enter to establish intervals that have nothing to do with C major. Mozart maintains an ambiguous uncertainty of any sense of harmonic progression, only establishing the dominant in the final measure before the Allegro begins. Mozart wrote this quartet for Haydn; and most likely the two of them played it together, Mozart on viola and Haydn on second violin (the two inner voices that drive much of the Adagio’s ambiguities). (The other members of the quartet were Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello.) It is easy to imagine Haydn shooting quizzical looks at Mozart during the opening (and Mozart barely able to contain himself from snickering). Quartetto di Cremona may not have taken quite such a humorous stance, but they definitely gave a clear account of the game Mozart was playing before the “more normal” string quartet writing took over for the remainder of the composition.

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