Music and music-making spectacular on all counts from 1972 (Op. 18) and 1973 (Op. 59) from Quartetto Italiano, who by the 1970s had come to represent the avantgarde among chamber ensembles in revisionist, linear style. Razor-wire intonation, fierce attacks, rhythmic propulsion, and a steadiness of inner pulsation made this foursome the multiplied version to strings what Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli had achieved for the keyboard. In surround sound, the brilliant figures and explosive dynamics that mark Beethoven’s equal distribution of parts, the ongoing dialogue of musical principals, becomes a ravishing series of conversations and epiphanies in music’s most intimate medium.
The huge first of the Rasumovsky “Russian” quartets in F Major offers an epic canvas for the Quartetto Italiano, and cellist Franco Rossi savors his every line, arco and plucked. The symphonic character of the writing exerts itself in any number of ways, from the augmented sonata-form to the autonomous and contrapuntal filigree that weave in and out of phase. The dense fugato which culminates the development section rings with shimmering ferocity. For me, besides the expansive, F Minor Adagio movement–with its sighing figures and mournful affect–the Scherzo wins the berries, a veritable pre-Mahler whirlwind of aggressive, syncopated energies no less faithful to sonata-form, but hidden among the numerous eddies of vibrant emotion that permeate this frenetic movement. Violinists Paolo Borciani and Elisa Pegreffi have a field day in the throes of their respective, indefatigable riffs, runs, and ornaments. Mr. Rossi’s cello introduces the ‘Tema Russe’ of the last movement, which Count Rasumovsky stipulated must inhabit his set of quartets; and the joyful, driven exuberance of the movement never sags. Viola Piero Farulli manages to complement Rossi’s cello with some flamboyant music of his own. As lyrical at it can be savage, this inscription, even after 35 years, remains a force with which to reckon, especially in its audiophile mulichannel format!
No less startling is the Quartetto Italiano’s explosive, thoroughly refreshed approach to the B-flat Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6, a composition whose each successive movement inexorably culminates in La Malinconia, its extra-musical designation for the last movement. The quick turns and rocket-figures of the movement possess an edgy, nervous bite, a sudden quality that must have unnerved many a guest at the Prince Lobkowitz salon where this quartet premiered. The dialogues among the entire and divided ensemble quite beguile our senses as the opening theme manifests itself in countless guises. The exquisitely wrought E-flat Major Adagio proceeds in 2/4 time, a wistful quasi-march in song form whose middle section in E-flat Minor allows the brighter skies of the major tonality to emerge once more. Wonderfully plastic metric shifts from 6/8 to ¾ in the Scherzo, a devilishly irreverent series of syncopations and propulsive accents that also has violinist Borciano trilling high and then playing solo in the Trio section in the manner of a baroque sonata. Beethoven employs his ‘cyclic’ principle for the Finale, as the Adagio reappears, but now it undergoes a series of six periods and tempo changes, as if Beethoven were anticipating his musical evolution of the late quartets. Strange harmonies mark the first four and one-half minutes of this stunning music, as the cello plays a four-note “fate” motif that leads to the Allegretto quasi allegro section, and some relief ensues in the form of musical dialogue in step-wise motion. The music suggests a broken, off-kilter waltz; then, another sigh-lit adagio section, a drone effect and more excruciating intervals intruded upon by the broken melody: shades for Bartok’s later exploitation. The music drunkenly swaggers to a wild Prestissimo whose revelry seems, at best, forced.