Quartetto di Cremona’s Shapely Beethoven—and a Surprising Encore

United StatesUnited States Boccherini, Respighi, Beethoven: Quartetto di Cremona (Cristiano Gualco, Paolo Androili, violins; Simone Gramaglia, viola; Giovanni Scaglione, cello), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 16.4.2016. (HS)

Boccherini: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 2, No. 6
Respighi: String Quartet in D major
Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

Italy’s much-talked-about Quartetto di Cremona, known for championing Italian chamber music both new and old, made its first appearance in San Francisco in a lively recital Saturday at Herbst Hall, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.

Opening with laudable traversals of nice but unexceptional pieces by Boccherini and Respighi, the quartet made its best impression with Beethoven’s late Op. 131 quartet and an ear-pleasing encore by Webern. As a group, the quartet lived up to its reputation, earned over 15 years together and a recordings oeuvre that includes a complete compilation of Beethoven quartets, currently in progress. They showed seamless execution, tossing musical lines amongst themselves with alacrity.

To my ears the star of the team is cellist Giovanni Scaglione, whose refined tone and rhythmic lift anchored the ensemble sound and gave the cello’s solo lines excellent expression. First violin Cristiano Gualco’s sound seem to come in and out of focus while second violin Paolo Androilli and violist Simone Gramaglia ably navigated the inner lines.

Their sense of unanimity was apparent in a gentle romp through Boccherini’s youthful Op. 2 No. 6, a lightweight three-movement opener. Better was the added gravitas they brought to Respighi’s rich layering of the instrumental sounds in his Quartet No. 1 in D major. The piece dates from 1904, when the composer of Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome was still earning his living as a violinist.

The Cremona’s work in the 40-minute Beethoven quartet caught the serious tone in the opening slow fugue—the lines coming through with clarity and expression—and the lively interplay and wit in the theme and variations at the center. The four short dance segments surrounding the variations were a refreshing diversion, leading to a final Allegro of joyful contrasts. After this performance, it’s easy to understand why the group’s Beethoven recordings, on the German Audite label, are getting so much attention.

The encore offered a rare chance to hear Webern’s Langsamer Satz (1905), written before Webern adopted atonality, but not discovered or performed until 1961, after Webern’s death. Its ten minutes use a richly chromatic style reminiscent of Schoenberg’s ultra-Romantic Verklärte Nacht (1899), not surprising since Webern had begun studies with Schoenberg shortly before writing this work.

In form and sound, it’s such a traditionally rich and opulent German Romantic piece that it’s hard to believes it’s by Webern, whose opus list of spare, acidic, atonal works starts in 1908. This one reflects the sure hand of an already accomplished composer with—surprise!—a wonderful flair for melody, along with his familiar genius for intertwining music lines. The group lavished as much attention on this as it did on the Beethoven, and it made a delicious dessert.

Harvey Steiman

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