At Edinburgh, Europa Galante Reveal Craftsmanship, Skill and Warmth in Monza’s Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2019 [5] – Mozart, Monza: Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi (first violin/director), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 10.8.2019 (SRT)

Europa Galante

Mozart – String Quartet in C, K 157; String Quartet in G, K 80; String Quartet in G, K 156

Monza – String Quartet in F ‘La Fucina di Vulcano’; String Quartet in B flat ‘Il giuocatore’; String Quartet in in D ‘Opera in music’; String Quartet in C ‘Gli amanti rivali’

My mouth was watering at the prospect of hearing Europa Galante in the flesh at the Edinburgh festival, especially in Mozart. This period instrument group have spiced up the world of Historically Informed Performance enormously over the years, with seminal recordings of Vivaldi and Boccherini, and their 2006 disc of Mozart violin concerts was the most dazzlingly exciting release to come out of the Mozart 250 year.

So I can’t conceal a bit of disappointment at the way they tackled these early Mozart String Quartets. For one thing, the instruments themselves were remarkably subtle, which is a lovely thing in itself, and it helps to bring out the conversational aspects of the quartets they were performing. Some elements were lovely, such as the minor key slow movement of K157, and Biondi himself, leading the ensemble from the first violin, did some delicious ornamentations in the first movement repeats. Intentionally or otherwise, however, they also gave the proceedings a hint of timidity, dialling down the excitement to a level that the music didn’t deserve. OK, it’s early Mozart (dating from 1770-73), but there is still a lot to get excited about in it, and I really wanted to hear them let loose and tear into the youthful composer’s vigorous melodies.

It never came, but perhaps their hearts lay elsewhere in this programme; specifically with the quartets of Carlo Monza. Monza was an older contemporary of Mozart, and the two men probably met at the court of Milan while Mozart was preparing the first performances of Lucio Silla. The programme book for this performance claims that these are ‘modern-day premieres’ of these Monza quartets, and even if there wasn’t much substantiation of that claim, there cannot have been many in the Queen’s Hall audience who have come across the composer before. (No, me neither.)

Turns out there is a lot to like, though. There’s craftsmanship, skill and warmth in Monza’s music, and the quartets that Biondi chose all have programmatic elements to them, as you can see from their subheadings. This shrewd move kept the audience’s attention through music that could otherwise seem a little formulaic, and it made my ear tune in in a way that it might not otherwise have done. The deliciously woody tone of the instruments gave an extra bite to the hammerings of Vulcan in his forge in the F major quartet, even suggesting a hint of sexual jealousy in his (utterly unconvincing) reconciliation with Venus as depicted in the latter movements. There was a delightful bustle to the opening movement of the B flat quartet with its depiction of the life of a gambler, and the warm viola-led melody of the finale suggested that the gambler’s supposed repentance might not last that long.

I found his ‘opera in music’ quartet most interesting, though. Monza affects to adopt some of the clichés of opera in this purely musical form, even down to adding a couple of instrumental recitatives, but he never specifies exactly what tale each movement is supposed to be telling. That meant that my ear and imagination ran rather wild, supposing love, drama, triumph and reconciliation; but was Monza, perhaps, doing this deliberately to suggest a touch of emperor’s new clothes? Similarly, the battle of the violin and viola in the ‘rival lovers’ quartet led, after the death of one lover, to a suspiciously upbeat finale; perhaps suggesting that the ladies weren’t too sad to see him gone after all!

Simon Thompson

The 2019 Edinburgh International Festival runs in venues across the city until Monday 26th August. For full details click here.

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