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Italianate Cries and Whispers

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
10/26/2023 -  
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade
Maurice Ravel: String Quartet
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132

Quartetto di Cremona: Cristiano Gualco, Paolo Andreoli (Violins), Simone Gramaglia (Viola) Giovanni Scaglione (Cello)

Quartetto di Cremona (© Nicolaj Lund)

I shall hear in heaven.
Ludwig van Beethoven, his last words.

The reputation of Quartetto di Cremona is worthy of their residence. After all, the rather commonplace town of Cremona was home to the greatest of all violin‑makers, Antonio Stradivarius. The woods surrounding the town still have ascendants of the original spruce wood. And while the Quartetto di Cremona do not play one of the 600 remaining original violins (the closest is a 1640 Amati), they have a beauty, a resplendent color which reflects their name.

At the start of an American tour, they played in one of the great small concert halls, Weill Recital Hall. And their first two pieces could have come from Italy itself.

That wasn’t quite true. The first half was Mediterranean in atmosphere, but the creators were German and French-Basque. Still, the opening of Hugo Wolf’s pseudo-folk-tune Italian Serenade easily belied its origin.

German, yes. But this is an easygoing one-off masterpiece from the lieder composer, and the Quartet romped through its joyous paean to life in Tuscany and beyond. Was it made for an Italian quartet? No. But this group gave it not only pure virtuosic playing but an insouciance of feeling.

With the start of the Ravel String Quartet, one realized why Italy produced no major 19th Century symphonic or chamber composers. Others–Wolf, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, even heavy‑handed Richard Strauss–created the al fresco Mediterranean countryside and joy and made it there own.

Granted, Ravel’s Quartet is in a class–an environment–of its own. Yet one could easily shoehorn the folkish theme from Wolf into the first movement, and nobody would blink.

The Cremona group know how to bring that mysterious Ravelian joy into the forefront. Much was due to the First Violin’s Cristiano Gualco, with a tone that for pure uncloying sweetness was like a musical kiss. Equally important was how the Quartetto di Cremona both sang and danced even in its transformations.

I used the word “mysterious” not for a mysterious atmosphere, but for how Ravel cryptically created a metamorphosis of themes. I had heard the work dozens of times, but only last night, in the 18th Century atmosphere of Weill Concert Hall, did I realize how both the plucked pizzicato opening to the second-movement scherzo and the main idea of the third-movement adagio actually changed the first first theme of the whole work.

Perhaps it was the clarity of these players, perhaps the gorgeous string tone (no, none of the players used a Strad from the forests around Cremona, but they could well have!) and the rhythmic bite.

Most surprising, its 1902-1903 date of composition was a mere two years before Schoenberg’s First String Quartet. That post-Wagnerian essay sounded, yes, well put together. It overlooked what the Cremona group offered to the Ravel: both joy and spirituality.

That’s a hefty combination. And besides this, Ravel didn’t need any dodecaphonic finagling wangling or theories to play hide‑and‑seek with the music. Quartetto di Cremona played with the music as if they were playing with a basket of diamonds, picking and choosing, and holding up each radiant musical jewel with musical delight.

Whatever the Elysian happiness of the first half was scratched out by the second half Beethoven Opus 132. Yes, it was deep, complex, and it needed concentration to absorb all 44 minutes. Even the third movement “Hymn of Thanksgiving” was thanks that the composer had overcome a bout of bowel inflammation.

(Had Haydn written it, the subtitle might have been “The ‘Rectum’ Quartet”.)

Yet if the work was initially inappropriate for such a sunny opening, the Quartetto di Cremona shed an eternal‑style light on the chthonic atmosphere.

Perhaps too much light. That first four-note motif should have the inaudible enigma of the 9th Symphony start. They took it as an introduction to a movement played with such loveliness that it just missed the utter desolation. In fact, I could hear Mr. Gualco’s melismatic solo over and over again. Of course the second and fourth movements, without the agony of the first, were played to perfection, and the finale, veering between triumph and wonderment showed just the perfection of this group.

Still, the centerpiece was the Thanksgiving to Beethoven’s Proctologist. One didn’t have to know this. The care of articulation, the dynamics, the use of vibrato and voicing of the four assured consuming poignancy.

The only grievous error is that after this monument to greatness they decided to give it an encore. The original Art of the Fugue is great music. But one would like to have memories of the complete Beethoven Quartet remain in the mind, rather than surrendering to the “Encore!” of the well-dressed well-educated eternalHoi Polloi.

Harry Rolnick



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