Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances presented the San Francisco debut of Quartetto di Cremona. The name refers less to the city famous for hosting some of the greatest violin makers in music history and more for being the ensemble’s place of origin. The group was founded in 2000 by violinists Cristiano Gualco and Paolo Andreoli, violist Simone Gramaglia, and cellist Giovanni Scaglione when all four of them were students at the Accademia Walter Stauffer in Cremona, studying with such masters as Salvatore Accardo, Bruno Giuranna, and Rocco Filippini. This debut recital provided the final concert in this season’s Chamber Series.
Over the past fifteen years the group has built up a repertoire whose breadth extends far beyond the composers of their native Italy. They may show a certain preference for Italians in their selection of contemporary composers; but, where music of previous centuries is concerned, they encompass the full scope of composers from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. For their debut, however, they chose to devote the first half of their program to two major Italian composers, Luigi Boccherini and Ottorino Respighi. For the second half they then turned to a single “late” quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Boccherini is one of those composers who deserves more attention than he gets. He was a contemporary of Joseph Haydn; and, like Haydn, took a great interest in chamber music as a vehicle for imaginative invention. The nineteenth century dismissed him as “Haydn’s wife;” but we really all ought to relegate that canard to Leon Trotsky’s dustbin of history. Boccherini’s instrument was the cello; and, as a result, much of his chamber music, including his string quartets, involves imaginative explorations of how the instrument can do “double duty,” providing both a continuo and a melodic line. In that respect his “composer’s voice” differed distinctively from Haydn’s in its own particularly inventive direction.
This was evident last night in the piece that Quartetto di Cremona selected to begin their program, the last of the six quartets that Boccherini published in 1761 as his Opus 2, his first set of published string quartets. Scaglione’s playing clearly demonstrated how Boccherini wanted the cello to be more than a continuo without sacrificing the need for a solid bass foundation. Thus, one encounters passages in which all four musicians soar above that foundation, almost defying gravity, but then reestablish their orientation before drifting too far afield. Each of the quartet’s three movements is relatively brief, but each still allows for considerable expressiveness. The piece made just the right selection for the ensemble to establish its first impressions.
The timeline then advanced to 1904, the year in which Respighi composed his D major string quartet, the best known of his six quartets. This was a far more extensive composition than the endeavor of the teenaged Boccherini. As Eric Bromberger observed in his notes for the program book, Respighi wrote the piece while a member of the Mugellini Quartet; so it is very much the product of an active working musician.
What is probably most evident in the music that resulted was a bold approach to what might be called “linear chromaticism.” Respighi seemed less interested in the role that chromatic pitches could play in establishing (and then resolving) harmonic ambiguity. Arnold Schoenberg had demonstrated a prodigious command of this approach in his 1899 string sextet “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night). Respighi probably knew about this music by reputation, even if he had not heard it in performance. His own preference for chromatics, however, involved stringing them out as a sinuous sequence of passing tones.
One of my own professors liked to dismiss this technique as “slimy chromaticism.” Respighi, on the other hand, seemed happy enough to take it on its own terms. What resulted was a rhetorical stance that, to some extent, recalled many of the popular embellishments encountered in the Italian opera repertoire. However, Respighi had figured out how to repurpose that rhetoric to suit the more modest setting of chamber music. The result is far more ambitious than “Crisantemi” (chrysanthemums), the string quartet movement that Giacomo Puccini composed in 1890; but Respighi’s longer-scale duration does not always hold up with the same impact as Puccini’s brevity.
However, extended duration ruled the roost for the second half of last night’s program. This was devoted entirely to Beethoven’s Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. While there are seven significant changes of tempo in the score, each of these demarcates an episode, rather than a “movement” in the traditional sense of the term. These seven sections unfold without interruption, making the quartet one of the most ambitious statements of its time. (It was completed in July of 1826, less than a year before Beethoven’s death.)
Nevertheless, if the piece is imposing in its overall architecture, it also provides Beethoven with a platform to return to the sorts of witty exchanges that he seemed to hurl at his former master Haydn in his early compositions. (That wit can be found in abundance in Beethoven’s first set of six string quartets published as his Opus 18.) The primary source for that wit is an extended set of variations that provides the central keystone of the entire quartet (as well as the longest of the episodes). In that respect it is important to note that Opus 131 was composed only a few years after Beethoven had completed his Opus 120 set of “Diabelli” variations, in which wit is also in abundant supply. Opus 131 reminds us that, whatever hardships may have faced Beethoven in the final years of his life, his wit could always help him confront his difficulties.
Fortunately, Quartetto di Cremona was not shy about exploring the many potentials for wit in Opus 131 (without every sacrificing any of the more serious passages, such as the opening fugue). Once again the cello part seemed to play a major role, making Scaglione a sort of “top banana” in these more humorous passages. (Beethoven provides some stunning comic moments for the cello in both energetic arco passages and slightly obstreperous pizzicato punctuations.)
Overall, the evening was a splendid introduction to a new visiting string quartet, providing them with ample opportunity to make a convincing case for their capacity for both breadth and depth.