Above: the artists of the Orion String Quartet, photographed by Andreas Hafenscher
Friday March 3rd, 2017 - A program mixing music by Italian composers with works by Mendelssohn and Wolf inspired by la bella Italia made for a warming experience on a frigid evening as Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented Tutto Italiano. With chamber works by those two titans of the Italian operatic repertory - Verdi and Puccini - on the bill, I invited my opera-loving friend James Shee to join me.
Pianist Alessio Bax (above) hails from Bari, Italy, which is also the birthplace of the 18th century composer Niccolò Piccinni, and of the legendary Puccini diva Licia Albanese; clearly Saint Cecilia continues to waft her blessings over the town from the heavenly heights. Tonight, Mr. Bax treated us to Mendelssohn's 'Venetianisches Gondellied', one of the composer's beloved 'Songs Without Words', dating from 1830.
In this gondolier's song, the canals of Venice are evoked. Mr. Bax made the Steinway sing in this all-to-brief canzonetta. It begins with a sad, minor-key tune, brightening a bit before coming to a hesitant close.
Giacomo Puccini had an affinity for the string quartet, and over the years he composed a half-dozen or so short works in the genre; most of these are long since forgotten, except for the elegiac Crisantemi ("Chrysanthemums"), said to have been composed in a single night in 1890; it was Puccini's a response to the death of the Duke of Savoy.
Crisantemi flows in a single, autumnal movement; Puccini later used two of the themes in his opera MANON LESCAUT - the work that put him on the musical map. The sad beauty of Crisantemi has prompted the scoring of various arrangements for string orchestra, but this evening - in a rich-toned performance - we heard Puccini's original setting.
Welcome back, Orion String Quartet: so nice to see these gentlemen on the Tully Hall stage again. They played with great feeling and, as ever, it is so engrossing to watch the silent communication between the players as they enriched Puccini's melancholy harmonies with touching expressiveness.
Hugo Wolf lived his life under the curse of syphilis, which was apparently the result of a visit to a brothel while still in his teens. That he managed to produce an impressive catalog of work despite this malady speaks for his determination and creative spirit. He died in 1903 at the age of 43, having spent his final four years in an asylum following an attempted suicide.
Wolf's Italian Serenade was penned in 1887 as a string quartet, and was enlarged 1892 for small orchestra. It was intended to be the first movement of a multi-movement composition, but it seems that the further pages he had mapped out were either lost or destroyed.
The Italienische Serenade is deftly written; I particularly enjoyed the movement of the cello line, played with warmth by Timothy Eddy. But it's to the viola that Wolf hands much of the serenade's 'vocal' line, and Steven Tenenbom made it sing in a persuasive alto. The violins - Daniel and Todd Phillips - sail overhead, embellishing the harmonics and keeping things sunny. The music sometimes has the feel of an old Italian film score.
Violinist Paul Huang (above, in a Carlin Ma photo) had spoken of his affection for the Respighi violin sonata, an affection which shone thru in his luminous playing. With Mr. Bax at the Steinway as a splendid collaborator, their performance was the heart and soul of the evening.
Respighi wrote this piece shortly after he had earned great acclaim for his immortal Fontane di Roma. The sonata is in conventional three-movement form, commencing with a Moderato which begins in a dreamy state and soon becomes more expansive. Is there anything more gorgeous than passionately lyrical music in a minor key? Messrs. Huang and Bax seemed born to play this sonata: the richness Mr. Bax draws from the Steinway and the soaring poetry of Mr. Huang's violin combined to thrilling effect, their shared mastery of dynamic nuance and the tenderness expressed by their meshing of voices kept the audience enthralled.
The music grows more turbulent, then calms itself for a stunning high entry by the violin - Mr. Huang at his most magical - and a great surge of passion arises, with Mr. Bax rhapsodizing at the keyboard. The violin again sings from the stratosphere before a coda of repose.
Romance brims up from the piano and the shining lustre of the violin transports the listener as the Andante espressivo begins. This movement has some of the most intriguing harmonies I've ever heard, and calls for molto legato from the violin. In one sublime passage, Mr. Huang soars to an ecstatic, sustained high note that has a life of its own. Restless lyricism and fluctuating harmonies colour the music; the piano plays alone in an expression of tender recollection. A long, last poignant song from the violin, and the Andante comes to its souful, sustained ending: a palpable silence lingers in the Hall as the final note fades away.
The sonata's final movement is based on the ancient form of the Passacaglia. A commanding introduction from the piano, then things are enlivened as the violin begins to play. The piano draws up to the higher register, where the violin joins in florid, fast-paced coloratura. The piano turns pensive, darkish at first and then more hopeful, as the violin sounds a nostalgic theme, rising higher and higher; Mr. Huang's ineffable sweetness of tone becomes so savorable here. Passion from the keyboard carries the two musicians to a rich, tragedy-tinged finish.
Following very warm applause for the Huang/Bax duo, the intermission gave an opportunity to reflect, both on the Respighi score and on their supremely beautiful, committed playing of it.
Speaking of Italian film scores, Nino Rota is the king of that genre: movies by Fellini, Visconti, Zeffirelli, and Coppola have all been enhanced by Rota's melodic, dramatic, and at times witty music. But he also wrote a great deal of other music - operas, symphonies, concertos, choral works, and chamber music; his Intermezzo for viola and piano dates from 1945.
The Orion's violist Steven Tenenbom (above) joined Mr. Bax for this work which starts off as a simple song. The piano leads on to a second theme, with the two artists in admirable interaction. As the music becomes more animated and the pace accelerates, there is a coloratura passage for the viola, and some lively plucking as well. Things then cool down to a lyrical postlude.
Puccini's little Scherzo dates from 1880. A dancelike theme with some charming plucking motifs leads to a slightly darker interlude with an appealing violin theme before a da capo sets the music heading all-too-soon to a finale. This miniature is like nothing else I've heard by Puccini and gives little indication that this is the man who will give us FANCIULLA DEL WEST and TURANDOT. The Orions had fun with it, then commenced on a work by Italy's other operatic giant: Giuseppe Verdi.
Verdi's String Quartet, dating from 1873, is the composer's only know chamber work. It was written around the time Verdi was completing his Messa da Requiem. Verdi commented on this detour into the chamber music realm: "I've written a Quartet in my leisure moments in Naples. I had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it and without inviting anyone in particular. Only the seven or eight persons who usually come to visit me were present. I don't know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it's a Quartet!"
The music is surprisingly light-weight; the composer - who already had the darkly regal DON CARLOS in his catalog - keeps things fairly buoyant throughout the Quartet; where one might expect a heartfelt adagio, Verdi instead gives us an Andantino. Overall, this is music that relates most nearly to DON CARLOS' ballet scene, which was obligatory for the opera's Paris premiere. Decades later, George Balanchine transformed the Ballet de la Reine, 'La Peregrina', into his sparkling BALLO DELLA REGINA.
The Orion Quartet gave a finely-shaped performance, astutely paced and with each player taking solo opportunities to heart. Their vibrant response to Verdi's rhythmic shifts kept things lively, and the harmonies - even in the most fleeting passages - were clear and lovingly blended.
With Verdi's upbeat finale singing in our ears, we emerged from Alice Tully Hall into the bracing air: "...the March wind doth blow...", as my grandmother liked to say.