BOCCHERINI: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 44, No. 4 “La Tirana Spagnola”; MOZART: String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 458 “The Hunt”; BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132 – Quartetto Italiano – ICA Classics ICAC 5070, 77:07 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
The Quartetto Italiano (1945-1980) still basks in an immaculate reputation for their stringent discipline cross-fertilized by a freedom of expression rare among chamber music ensembles. Critic and composer Virgil Thomson pronounced them “the finest string quartet, unquestionably, that our century has known.” On this happy disc, they appear at the Royal Festival Hall, London (22 February 1965) in total command of their powers and of the music at hand, which includes a late Beethoven string quartet, their perennial trump card.
The program opens with Boccherini’s two-movement work intended to celebrate both Seville and Madrid with a gregarious Presto and inventive Tempo di minuetto. The first movement, originally requiring a tambourine as a Tirana, moves in cantering pulsations that display the unanimity of tone of the Quartetto Italiano, while the variations allow first violin Paolo Borciani his moments of concertante splendor. The dancing figures in the course of the variants will likely recall Boccherini’s eternal fandango quintet to connoisseurs.
Mozart’s B-flat Major Quartet, one of six dedicated to Haydn, has less to do with “hunting” per se than with the rising and falling degree of the sixth that infiltrates its first movement. Mozart claimed that he had well learned the lesson writing string quartets from Haydn’s Op. 33 “Russian” Quartets. The clean articulate lines of the Allegro vivace assai allow Borciani and violist Piero Farulli to converse elastically and with nuanced expression. The happy scamper of the movement proceeds with warm exaltation, especially fertile in harmony with Borciani’s extended trills or running passages. Even the traditional coda becomes enriched and develops along lines Brahms would find to his creative taste.
A dignified Menuetto and Trio ensues, a loftily expressive conception rife with courtly grace. The Trio dances on tiptoes, Borciani a step away from a miniature concerto or concertino. Borciani’s first violin dominates the long, melancholy line of the Adagio, the other voices shading its grief with hints from Gluck’s Orfeo. Franco Rossi’s deep-chested cello adds to the emotional alchemy an aura of primal loss mollified by spiritual serenity. The finale, Allegro assai, combines three themes in bravura fashion, the interweaving voices passing through each other in unbroken, supple counterpoints. The seamless ensemble moves so effortlessly, we quite jump in surprise as the London audience erupts in delight.
Quartetto Italiano added Beethoven’s 1825 Op. 132 to their repertory late in their career, c. 1962. Their 1966 inscription of the piece launched their Beethoven cycle for Philips records. Plastic and intensely molded, the lines of the opening Assai sostenuto capture the often groping melancholy and sudden rushes of improvised, exploratory lyricism that erupt from the composer’s pen, given that he treats the first four notes from the cello in a manner sympathetic to Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The abrupt moodiness of the piece, its fierce compression and harmonic audacities, obviously cast a compelling spell upon the imagination of Bela Bartok. Typically, the work moves from minor to major, dark to light, from strict determinism to a victory of the will. Later, Beethoven seems to relish a sense of antiquity, exploiting the Lydian mode for his Herculean Adagio movement, a rapt prayer of thanksgiving. Borciani’s little figure in the fifth measure of the Allegro ma non tanto second movement in A Major proves the kernel that occupies pride of place. The Trio sounds as if the quartet were tuning their instruments, a musical eddy that gives forth an ostinato reel of deceptive asymmetrical rhythmic power.
The “Holy Song of Thanks” receives a truly spacious, nervously taut reading, a clear precedent of anything like the yearning for spirituality in Mahler. The long-held notes ring brazen and clean, the resolutions out of the anguished harmonies hard-won, devastating. It seems as though the contrasting movements on either side of this awesome movement support its otherworldly nature, especially since the immediate successor, Alla marcia, assai vivace, exerts a four-square, banal, almost vulgar mediocrity upon the “sacred” ritual, much in the spirit of Bach’s quodlibet from the Goldberg Variations. But even the London audience feels the respite Beethoven grants profundity in this movement; and then, it segues via an instrumental recitative to the final Allegro appassionato, a procedure (and melody) directly indebted to and intended for the Ninth Symphony. Another massive sonata-rondo, the movement pays homage to master Haydn while vanquishing Beethoven’s personal demons in a flurry of luminous figures in A Major from the most peerless quartet ensemble of its era.
A Best of the Year candidate, certainly, as the British audience could perceive from the concert’s outset.
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