Beautiful Venetian music overflows at Newtown show

Music Review - The News-Times, Friday, April 11, 2003

by Jim Pegolotti - News-Times Music Critic

NEWTOWN - On Sunday afternoon the Quartetto di Venezia brought to a close the 25th year of concerts by the Newtown Friends of Music. Since Italy is the home of the greatest makers of string instruments, and since strings are the heart of chamber music performances, it was perfect planning to have string quartet from Italy conclude the anniversary year.

One reason the Quartetto has achieved acclaim for its exceptional ensemble playing is that the four musicians have been performing together for 20 years.

Violinists Andrea Vio and Alberto Battiston, violist Luca Morassutti, and cellist Angelo Zanin began their collaboration as music students in Venice. What they have achieved is a quality that is equivalent to operatic "bel canto." In other words, their instruments sing beautifully.

Their program was "an overview of 200 years of Italian chamber music" as pointed out in the excellent program notes of Markland Taylor. The "Quartet in A Major" by Luigi Boccherini (1743 - 1805) opened the program. The gentle melodies by this earliest developer of the string quartet seemed to emerge effortlessly and always with delicate shading.

The short "Concerto in G Major" - "alla rustica" - of Antonio Vivaldi (1675 - 1743) emphasized the effective unison playing of the four while the music provided images of the camaraderie of Italian peasants.

One of the goals of these four Italian musicians is to revive the music of important composers already in musical twilight. One of these is Antonio Bazzini (1818 - 1897). A native of Brescia (a city between Milan and Venice), he was one of Giacomo Puccini's teachers. His "Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 76" is a feature of the group's American tour, and well it should be.

Quick-to-like melodies flowed in all four movements, and little themes circulated from player to player. The second movement, though labeled "Minuetto," could have been mistaken for a Strauss waltz. The cello's pulsing rhythms in the final movement gave the energy for the vivacissimo result.

The second half of the concert featured music by Puccini (1858 - 1924) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901), but not music they had written for their operas. Puccini's "Crisantemi" (chrysanthemums) is an elegy written at the death of Amadeo of Savoy, who for three years had been king of Spain.

(No, the history of Italy is not simple.) In the seven-minute work, the elegy's lyrical side emerged with quiet dignity.

The final work was Verdi's only string quartet, "Quartet in E minor," and a very good one it is. He composed it in 1873 while he was bored awaiting a delayed production of "Aida." His emphasis of the use of the lower tones of the instruments helps to give the work real body.

In the allegro movement, the instruments in their interplay sounded as if Verdi had written the string equivalent of the vocal quartet from "Rigoletto." A slow waltz, with variations, and a short prestissimo, led to the finale, robustly played.

The encore was the humorous "Polka" from "The Age of Gold," by Dmitry Shostakovich, who was not, as first violinist Vio slyly remarked, an Italian.

And what made the Quartetto di Venezia's concert so special? Well, there were several reasons. For example, the four musicians evinced no distracting mannerisms. Their intent was to honor the composer's music, and they did.

Their bowing provided some of the most delicate unison pianissimos ever heard in Edmond Town Hall. Central to such effective ensemble playing was the continuous eye contact among them. Overall, it was just a splendid example of music making by one of Europe's finest quartets.

On Monday, the Quartetto di Venezia left to complete their American tour in Seattle after concerts ranging from Los Angeles to Burlington, Vermont. How fortunate for Newtown to have been included.