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A score that gave even Mahler a pause

New York
Alice Tully Hall
02/01/2022 -  
Sergei Prokofiev: Quartet No.1 in B Minor, op.50
Carl Maria von Weber: Clarinet Quintet in B flat Major, op.34
Arnold Schönberg: Quartet No.1 in D Minor, op.7

David Shifrin (clarinet), Quartetto di Cremona: Cristiano Gualco, Paolo Andreoli (violins), Simone Gramaglia (viola), Giovanni Scaglione (cello)

Quartetto di Cremona (© Da Ping Luo)

Quartetto di Cremona has performed in New York City on several occasions but this was their Lincoln Center debut under the umbrella of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. This Italian group founded some 20 year ago, at the present time and in opinion of many, carries the mantle of its legendary masters, the Quartetto Italiano which disbanded decades ago; it is not difficult to see why such comparisons are made.

As it befits today almost any string quartet, they all are superb instrumentalists, and their quartet experience was honed by studying with not only Quartette Italiano but the equally renowned Alban Berg Quartet. Together that creates a welcomed combination of Italianate passion and intensity with Austro‑German formal awareness and discipline. Visually, they represent the “new way” of quartet playing, similar to such quartets as Emerson or the Polish group Apollon Musagète, by standing up which may conceivably add to both visceral and sonic effects.

The “boys from Genoa” (as they all hail from that city!) offered a demanding program composed of works by Prokofiev, Weber and Schoenberg. Prokofiev’s Quartet No.1, the first of two, doesn’t find itself too often on programs and it proved itself to be a very effective opening piece. Prokofiev, known as a virtuoso pianist and author of many piano works that entered the standard repertory, up till 1930 had not created works for the string quartet. This absence was addressed through a commission that came from the great philanthropist Ms. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. As the composer related, he started to work on his quartet when he was traversing by rail the vastness of the American continent during his concert tour as a pianist. He mentions that at this point he immersed himself in the study of Beethoven scores in order to master the medium of string quartet writing. His own first try indicates nothing that would point toward any indecisiveness or lack of self‑confidence. The form and structure of the opening Allegro are very easy to follow, there are three contrasting themes and writing for the quartet is sure‑footed. The initial fiery burst of energy created for the players some minimal intonation issues which were soon resolved. The most effective section of the quartet is its second movement Andante molto-Vivace: the slow, pensive intro followed by the vigorous, frantic, frenetic segment akin in its frenzy to Allegro marcato from his Symphony No.5. The last movement is uncharacteristically much more subdued, tender and calm. Prokofiev liked that well enough to make transcriptions of it for string orchestra and for solo piano. And we thought that J.S. Bach was the greatest of the “recyclers”...

The Prokofiev was followed by the ever-popular Quintet in B flat Major for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello by Weber. What Mozart, von Weber and Brahms have in common was that each of them had his favorite clarinet player for whom he would write some of his most impressive works. In the case of von Weber his friendship with then-famed clarinet player Heinrich Baermann, brought fruit in several works written for him and this Clarinet Quintet was the first of six such compositions. One may wonder why the composer did not use the traditional title “quintet”, but if one takes into account the virtuosic nature of this work, it is in a way more a solo piece than a typical chamber work where all instruments have relatively equal and important parts.

We were lucky to have David Shifrin as a soloist in this delightful music. If one might have had an initial misgiving about the relaxed pace of the opening Allegro, it was very soon dispelled by the assured, elegant and highly musical playing of our veteran performer, who was once, for over a decade, an Artistic Director of the CMS. His command of the instrument remains complete and one had to admire not only the beautiful sound of his made-to-order instrument crafted by Morrie Backun, but unbelievable breath and tonal control demonstrated in numerous “licks” and dynamically diverse scale work. Though the Weber quintet was not completed until 1813, in its more inspired, mysterious, emotional moments we can already glimpse into the operatic realm and tonal world of his yet to be composed opera Der Freischütz.

After the intermission came the major work of the program, Quartet No.1 vby Schönberg. This is a colossal composition that takes close to 50 minutes to perform. It is ostensibly written in four sections but the only clear break appears between the second and third linked by a short cello cadenza. It is written in almost the same relatively accessible compositional style as the earlier Verklärte Nacht. These days, listening to this First Quartet, it is hard to accept the famous statement of Gustav Mahler who supposedly told Schönberg after seeing the score: “I have conducted the most difficult scores of Wagner; I have written complicated music myself in scores of up to thirty staves and more; yet here is a score of not more than four staves, and I am unable to read them.” Yes, it is densely written and often demonstrates advanced use of polyphony but would it be a problem for the composer who himself wrote thorny scores? For Schönberg one of the new roads of composition consisted of the invention of families of themes which derive from each other and have great modulatory possibilities. Schoenberg’s contrapuntal innovations apparently expanded upon Wagner’s practice of combining leitmotifs; the younger composer fashioned new themes out of subsidiary material and allowed them to coexist by the use of variation and transformation. To modern ears, the large swaths of the canvas sound akin to a multi- layered conversation of voices, when one (a theme) is being commented on by the others in a highly polyphonic mode and style.

It is worthwhile to quote Schönberg’s own description of the first part of the composition, for it is loaded with palpable, flagrant emotions. A one‑page text glued to the back cover of Schönberg’s 1904-1905 sketchbooks has been identified as a private programme for the piece. Below is an example from the first section:
I. (1) a) Revolt, Defiance; b) Longing; c) Rapture.
(2) a) Dejection; Despair; Fear of being engulfed; unaccustomed feelings of love, desire to be wholly absorbed. b) Comfort, Relief (She and He) c) New outbreak; Dejection, Despair; and d) Transition to
(3) Struggle of all the motives with the determination to begin a new life. e) Mild disagreement

In 1940, asked about this programmatic description, Schönberg replied, “One does not tell such things anymore!”, but this private description was not denied by the composer.

Instead, he always pointed out, not without pride, the constructive achievement of this generously dimensioned work, imprinted with wide‑spanning melodies as well as with differentiated rhythms and counterpoint. Here, Schönberg combines the individual elements of the sonata cycle (first movement, scherzo with trio, adagio and rondo‑finale) in the movements of one single “double function form,” which has at its center a broad development section. Neither did he contradict the assessment that it was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony that served him as the form model for his composition.

The performance by the Quartetto di Cremona left very little to be desired. As in the previous work, the Boys from Genoa showed their elegance, energy and precision. Their Strads sounded great, vibrant and effervescent. Without knowing the score as well as other segments of repertory, it sounded as a marvelously well thought‑out, mature reading with tons of delicacy and refinement.

After a 50-minutes long quartet, a perhaps unexpected encore followed - we were rewarded with the slow movement Larghetto from Mozart Quintet in A Major K.581, again with David Shifrin and that, conceivably, was for many of us a highlight of the program. It is arguably one of the most inspired slow movements of Mozart – though it is hard to find ones that are not inspired – and Shifrin sang his melodies beautifully. He brought for that encore his A clarinet which also gave a slightly darker color to the texture. A nice way to send the exhausted audience home with a collective smile and whistling Mozart’s melody.

Roman Markowicz



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