Pontino Festival 2011 (2) – An Enquiry into Musical Energy

Pontino Festival  2011 (2) Beethoven and Schumann: Natalia Gutman (cello) and Eilissò Virsaladze (piano) Caetani Castle courtyard, Sermoneta, 11. 7. 2011, with Davide Alogna, Cesare Zanfini, Mirei Yamada, Raffaele Fuccilli (violins), Diana
Bonatesta (viola) (JB)

Beethoven: Sonata in G minor Op. 5 no. 2

Schumann: Quintet in E flat Op. 44

Sermoneta (Latina), 17 Luglio 2001. Panorama della cittadina con il Castello Caetani. Foto di Enrico Para. Copyright 2001.

Someone should write a book about musical energy. Or better, energies, for the more I reflect on it, the more I understand that there are multiple and various energies. The matter becomes complex. Hence the need for a book-length enquiry. For a matter which is so ubiquitous, energy remains mysterious. Just think of your energy of yesterday, for instance. (Leave music aside for the moment.) Was your energy overflowing all day? Intermittent? Dependant on external stimulus? Largely absent? Frustratingly absent? Were you in command? Was someone near you in command? What part did the environment plays in your energy flow?

Looking at the possible answers to these questions might form a useful introductory chapter. To make the questions more realistic and more comprehensive, go through them twice, once for mental energy, followed by another round for physical energy. Then comes a further useful question: are there any correspondences or relationships between the two groups of answers?

Fast forward to what might be (the hypothetical) chapter 4 or 5 where we need to look at the musical energy exemplified in the Russian school (by which I mean trained in that system). Which characteristics come distinctly through? “Electrically” charged rhythmic precision, perfectly clean melodic and harmonic lines, a sense of urgency in what is being played, a feeling of total command which paradoxically can also combine with a feeling of abandon, impeccable enunciation (in an actor this would be called perfect diction where we clearly hear every word), immense respect for the composer’s smallest details.

Natalia Gutman and Elissò Virsaladze have been playing as a duo for some forty years, yet their playing has a freshness as though the sounds were being formed just in that moment for the audience’s ears. That, of course, is a hallmark of professionalism. All the qualities just listed were heard in their performance of the G minor Beethoven sonata.

The concert was in the courtyard of Sermoneta’s Caetani Castle. Madame Virsaladze was right when she told me at lunch that the courtyard doesn’t have a good acoustic, it doesn’t have a bad acoustic, it simply doesn’t have an acoustic at all. A grand piano can easily drown out a cello, yet from where I was sitting in the sixth row, the balance was perfect. Did I forget to mention projection as an admirable characteristic of the Russian energy school?

The young violinist, Davide Alogna is the leader of the Orchestra Toscana and he told me on the morning of the performance that he was prepared to go to any lengths to make chamber music with the Gutman/Virsaladze duo. His contribution to the Schumann Quintet was rewarded and rewarding. However, his orchestral commitments meant that he was not able to make all the rehearsals which the Russian ladies deemed necessary. So rehearsals which Davide was unable to attend with his second violin, Cesare Zanfini, were substituted by Mirei Yamada and Raffaele Fuccilli, who together with the violist, Diana Bonatesta (and more of Diana in a minute) are members of the Avos Piano Quartet, a recent formation of graduates from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory.

Speaking violinistically, Mirei is inferior to Davide; however, she is superior as a member of an ensemble and brought with her the experience of playing with another member of the quintet. This sounded.

Please remember that the Pontino Festival is about training as well as concerts: giving opportunities as well as memorable performances. A compromise was reached: Alogna and Zanfini played the first two movements and Yamada and Fuccilli the third and fourth movements.

After Natalia Gutman soared in with the memorable second subject of the first movement with ravishing, unparalleled romanticism (though not so much as a hint of sentimentality) it takes courage and confidence for the viola to pick up the phrase. Diana Bonatesta let us hear that she is made of the very stuff of courage and confidence. Hers will surely be a sound that Madame Gutman will take back to Moscow with pride as part of her excellent coaching.

This quintet was the most enthralling and energetic music-making which I have ever heard in three years of attending the Pontino Festival.

Jack Buckley