Quartetto di Cremona brings life and beauty to Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival

United StatesUnited States Various: Quartetto di Cremona (Cristiano Gualco, Paolo Andreoli [violins], Simone Gramaglia [viola], Giovanni Scaglione [cello]). Alice Tully Hall, New York, 8.3.2024. (DS)

Quartetto di Cremona © Da Ping Luo

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110
Osvaldo Golijov – ‘Tenebrae’
Schubert – String Quartet No.14 in D minor D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

As part of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Winter Festival, the Quartetto di Cremona paid New York a memorable visit that evoked ‘not happiness but life…and beauty’, as violist Simone Gramaglia succinctly noted. The quartet was marvelous at presenting both – through their excellent playing and firm hold on signature interpretations of great works, and through a palpable sensitivity to the complexities of the human condition that often only music can portray.

With no timidity, they opened with Shostakovich’s Quartet No.8 – known for its inextricably linked identity to the dangers of totalitarianism. Originally, the work was practiced in secret by early members of the Borodin Quartet in the Soviet Union. Here, on the Alice Tully stage before a rapt audience, Quartetto di Cremona played it with an easy, adept, unyielding style that combined a sense of historical context and present meaning. Notably, the opening four-note motif set the tone for the quiet depths. Tempos throughout the Largo and into the Allegro molto were carefully planned and implemented zealously. In the Allegretto, a crisp tone was counteracted by passages of ironic sweetness that left behind a memorable tension.

As they continued, No.8 began to gleam like a beautifully refurbished heirloom – perfect yet accented with character. The players served the music with fervor, playing unison passages with unfettered expression and taking on duets in balanced partnership. Accompaniment passages by the second violin and viola lent a poetic rhythm that ranged from a gentle touch to pounding ferocity. This provided the first violinist and cellist with a palette over which melodies and motifs conversed intrepidly and with elegance.

In the closing Largo movement, the cellist pulled the melody through with a surreal-like expression that locked together the sense of present and past which are so special in the Quartet No.8. Quartetto di Cremona’s superb musicality and craftsmanship prove that Shostakovich’s 1960 work not only stands the test of time but remains a relevant reminder of how we must not forget what matters in life. One must always hold firm to what is right.

Before going on to Schubert’s ‘Death and Maiden’, the quartet performed the brief ‘Tenebrae’ by Osvaldo Golijov, a light work in comparison to the others. Even for those who might not be Golijov fans (as I am not), in the hands of the Quartetto di Cremona there was a transformative power to this ethereal piece. It served well as a space in which to unwind and reflect upon the emotional and political aspects of the Shostakovich.

To close out the evening, Quartetto di Cremona continued with the theme of life and beauty in a show-stopping performance of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’. It confirmed the outstanding strengths of the ensemble – exquisite endings to phrases; a deep variety of tonal textures that match perfectly to the imagery embedded in the music; clear and convincing tempo changes; and unhindered personal expression of the melody that is simultaneously precise and gestural. The elegant Andante compelled the audience to clap between movements. And my favorite – the Scherzo – was played as if they were on a trampoline, bouncing between heaven and hell.

This could be described as an evening of real music and generous playing. I can’t help but feel that Quartetto di Cremona would have played just as fantastically in a small rehearsal room because they revere the music. Maybe that is precisely why it was so memorable: we listeners were simply fortunate to be here.

Daniele Sahr

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