Quartetto Energie Nove
Prokofiev / Malipiero / Beethoven

LAC / Teatrostudio, Lugano, 2019-03-16

3-star rating

2019-03-21 — Original posting

Quartetto Energie Nove (source: energienove.com)
Quartetto Energie Nove (source: energienove.com)

Introduction

This was the second one of three string quartet recitals in this year’s “String Quartet Weekend” (Weekend Quartetti d’Archi) in the “Teatrostudio” in the LAC in Lugano (the first concert was on 2019-04-15, see my separate report).

The Artists: The Quartetto Energie Nove

The Quartetto Energie Nove emerged in Lugano, in 2008 (see also Wikipedia), with the following members:

All four musicians are principal players in the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (OSI), based in Lugano. The concert leaflet lists their instruments as

The inspiration for the ensemble’s name came from a radical early 20th century Italian political and literary magazine Energie Nove (New Energies) created by Piero Gobetti (1901 – 1926).

Program

The Quartetto Energie Nove started off with two 20th century quartets, then turned to one of Beethoven’s big, late works for string quartet:

Setting, etc.

This quartet was with local artists, and the timing was on a more favorable Saturday evening: this explains why there were more people (around 70) than on the preceding evening. My wife and I again sat in the last row, though this time in the left-hand side block. All photos below are by the author (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).


Prokofiev: String Quartet No.2 in F major, op.92, “Kabardinian” (1941)

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) composed his String Quartet No.2 in F major, op.92, “Kabardinian” in 1941. The work premiered in Moscow, in 1942. At the time of the composition, Russia was invaded by the Germans, and Prokofiev was evacuated to Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. While in Nalchik, Prokofiev was asked to write a quartet using KabardinoBalkar folk themes. Hence the surname of his second string quartet. It features three movements:

  1. Allegro sostenuto
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro

The Performance

One could easily see that the bulk of the mutual interaction between the members of the quartet is through their work in the orchestra (OSI): their communications, their “control lines” (presumably) function just like in the orchestra. Clearly, Hans Liviabella is in control of the ensemble: his playing, his gestures and interactions are lively, very active. He is leaning forward, sits at the edge of his chair (presumably the same as in the orchestra), and occasionally, he even jumps onto his feet, to an almost upright position, as if he needed to keep a large orchestra under control (assisting the conductor, of course). And as in orchestral performances, the other quartet members closely kept track of his directions.

I don’t mean to imply that Liviabella’s companions are mere followers, recipients of instructions. They fulfilled their active roles as soloists, where necessary (again, as expected for first desks in orchestral performances). However, the first violin had the clear lead role in the quartet. Without excessively dominating in terms of sound and volume, though. This “invisible network” functioned well. The partnership, the rhythmic coordination was excellent, everybody showed engagement, played vividly, with verve.

I. Allegro sostenuto

As mentioned above, I experienced an engaged performance, full of verve. Sure, in terms of coherence in sound and volume, it wasn’t near the performance on the previous day. The quartet did not try highlighting the rough aspects in Prokofiev’s music—nor was the performance too tamed. But in terms of unified, congruent sound quality, the “power of common sound”, there still seemed to be room for improvement.

That could be a question of the characteristics of the instruments (the first violin sounded relatively bright), the sound of the instruments didn’t always mix in a convergent way. Most likely, however, articulation, the amount and characteristics of vibrato, the types of strings, bow pressure, etc. are just as important. As good as this performance may have been, it also gave a clear indication as to how much (more) attention to details ensembles such as the Artemis Quartet must have been paying in order to attain the ultimate coherence—for years on end. — ★★★

II. Adagio

Good partnership in sound, very good intonation (throughout the first half of the concert). I particularly liked the interplay between viola and cello: seamless transitions in terms of sound and coordination. I also liked the tempo, the calm atmosphere, devoid of rushing, maintaining the tension at all times. — ★★★

III. Allegro

Very engaged, lively playing, fun music with its folk (and sometimes children’s) tunes, full of joy (also on the part of the musicians): verve, momentum, engagement. It may not have been a very “Russian” performance (rather sometimes reminding of Commedia dell’arte). However, it was full of life, multifaceted, and with interesting sound effects, and never, ever boring. — ★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★

First Conclusions

At first, the Quartetto Energie Nove appears to have bad luck in performing the day after the concert with the Artemis Quartet. The latter is an ensemble which has perfected its art by deliberately limiting its repertoire and consciously scrutinizing every aspect of the performance, working on the coherence and the strength of its sound and expression. Clearly, the Quartetto Energie Nove is not performing at the same level of perfection and diligence. But their goal and scope is different—as much as their specific strengths (and weaknesses) are in different areas, as this concert has shown.

First and foremost, the Quartetto Energie Nove is not specializing in their work as a quartet to the same degree: they are all key members of the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (OSI), and that part of their identity must take up a major share of their time as artists. And within their work as chamber music ensemble, their areas of special interest aren’t the same. Rather, “string quartet personality” is strongly shaped by their environment, the traditions they grew up with, as we will see in due course.


Malipiero: String Quartet No.1, “Rispetti e strambotti” (1920)

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882 – 1973) composed his String Quartet No.1, “Rispetti e strambotti” in 1920. The name of the work refers to forms in Italian poetry, where rispetti were love messages from men to ladies. Strambotti were roundelays (rondelets), a specific form of 24-line poem in trochaic tetrameter. Malipiero’s “Rispetti e strambotti” is a string quartet in a single movement, in which the composer meant to depict various aspects of the Renaissance period, namely clergy and peasantry.

The Performance — A Homecoming?

One could instantly recognize how much the ensemble is familiar with Malipiero (and the music of that time and style): this seemed to be “their world”! The sound instantly appeared more coherent, internally more consistent, the performance very atmospheric. And Malipiero’ music offers a kaleidoscope in colors and moods. The initial, rough “peasant dance motif”, full of archaic fifths and empty strings, is recurring throughout the movement. There was also a very intense viola solo early on, a lyrical cantabile on the first violin, followed by moments full of verve and passion. It felt as if the music was written specifically for these artists.

There were moments where I asked myself whether Carl Orff (1895 – 1982) knew this music and extracted melodic and rhythmic ideas for his Carmina burana (1935/1936). Then again, there were these subtle, solemn moments with soft chorale melodies (the “clergy moments”), which the ensemble left without vibrato, raw/archaic in a way. Intermittent “peasant dance moments” lead over to folk tunes with a nice, very expressive solo on the viola, reminding me of sephardic music (?). A short pizzicato segment remotely similar to the Scherzo from Symphony No.4 by Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), then again more, joyful folk tunes.

Rating: ★★★★

Overall, “Rispetti e strambotti” is music in Malipiero’s own, genuine, personal idiom. It may take a moment to get “into” this composition. In its structural / formal aspects, it is barely at the level of Prokofiev’s quartet. Nevertheless, it would be a pity if this piece—and Malipiero’s oeuvre—was forgotten. Quite to the contrary: Malipiero deserves to be performed more frequently!


Beethoven: String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130

Towards the end of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) returned to the genre of string quartets again, creating a series of monumental works, all of which are central to the string quartet repertoire. In its original form, the String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130 premiered in March 1826, featuring six movements.

After the premiere, people found the last movement, the famous “Große Fuge” (Great Fugue) too hard to digest. It’s a huge movement with complex structure in itself: Overtura, Allegro – Meno mosso e moderato – Allegretto – Fuga, Allegro – Meno mosso e moderato – Allegro molto e con brio – Allegro. Confronted with the criticism by audience, critics, and musicians, including violinist and composer Louis Spohr (1784 – 1859), the publisher asked Beethoven for an “easier” final movement.

Beethoven wasn’t happy with that response, but complied. However, knowing about the value of the Große Fuge, he had that published separately, as String Quartet in B♭ major, op.133, “Große Fuge. The quartet op.130 was published with the following movements:

  1. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro
  2. Presto
  3. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso
  4. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
  5. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
  6. Finale: Allegro

I have commented on earlier concert performances of Beethoven’s op.130 before. The last one was from a concert on 2019-01-21 in Bern. On top of that,  I have written an extensive comparison of recordings String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130 with the new finale (there is also a separate posting comparing recordings of the Große Fuge in B♭ major, op.133).

The Performance

I. Adagio, ma non troppo –

A striking feature right at the beginning: there are two slurs (bars 1 and 3) with crescendo forks in the initial, introductory theme. The quartet left the last note under each slur distinctly short, leaving a little gap prior to the p continuation in bars 2 and 4. That’s a bit unusual, as there is no staccato dot over that last note. However, I saw this as sign for careful, conscious articulation. In the second half of the introduction, the second violin formed a nice, seamless transition in sound quality when it took over the short cantilena from the cello: it almost required a visual check to see who was playing.

Allegro

After the first Allegro segment with its semiquaver chains, the staccato/f note at the Tempo I appeared very resolute, like a sf. In the subsequent rest, as well as in other rests, with or without fermata, maybe even at transitions in general, I noted a drop in tension. I did like the restricted, selective use of vibrato. Sadly, the artists left out the repeat of the exposition. Technically, the ensemble did not face problems with this movement. The short semiquaver motifs might have been a little clearer, though. Also, there were occasional (minor) superficialities in intonation (playing with little vibrato exacerbates this, of course, as it exposes even minute impurities).

However, one could still sense the substantial difficulties in this movement: the long semiquaver chains were sometimes in danger of losing momentum, and a little more agogics (such as ritenuti) might have helped carrying the tension through rests and transitions. — ★★★½

II. Presto

The artists performed this with somewhat harsh articulation, highlighting the Scherzo character of the movement, and they managed to maintain the momentum, with the help of a slight accelerando in the second half. However, the first violin is extremely exposed in its high and very articulate passages. And I noted impurities in the intonation: difficult, really tricky! — ★★★

III. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso

This is less virtuosic than the Presto. Still, it is not devoid of challenges, especially in maintaining the tension, the flow. I again liked and appreciated the restricted vibrato, even if this exposed occasional, minor impurities in the intonation. — ★★★

IV. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai

Also here: occasional intonation issues. And: the frequent crescendo forks, as well as the short, explicit “belly” motifs (< >) were very direct—a little too direct, maybe? Couldn’t this be more subtle and swaying, more dance-like? — ★★★

V. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo

A slow, reflective, sad / mourning movement—nevertheless challenging! Initially, the tempo seemed OK, but later, it occasionally tended to accelerate very slightly. That was enough to make one feel a little unrest, make the music feel somewhat too direct. It takes a lot of guts and perseverance to play this really Adagio molto espressivo! — ★★★

VI. Finale: Allegro

First and foremost: I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate that the ensemble performed the quartet with the “new” finale, not with the Große Fuge. Most ensembles select the latter, presumably because it is so spectacular and effective. However, the Allegro finale is anything but a cheap alternative, born out of sheer necessity! Beethoven was proud of this new finale, too, and the movement comes with its own technical challenges!

I wasn’t just pleased with the choice of finale. I also found this the best movement in this performance: both moody and playful, subtle, light in the articulation, a joy to listen to: thanks for the pleasure! — ★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★


Encore — Lino Liviabella: Due Espressioni Liriche for String Quartet (1927)

As encore, the first violinist, Hans Liviabella announced a rare, largely unknown composition by Lino Liviabella (1902 – 1964, see also Wikipedia): the 1927 composition Due Espressioni Liriche (two lyrical expressions) for String Quartet (possibly one of two movements). It turns out that Lino Liviabella was Hans Liviabella’s grandfather, and one in a long musical family tradition:

  • Hans’ great-great-grandfather Livio Liviabella was a pupil of Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868).
  • Hans’ great-grandfather Oreste Liviabella (Lino’s father) was organist and director of the Cappella Musicale del Duomo di Macerata.
  • Oreste’s son, Lino Liviabella (1902 – 1964), was the composer of the encore,
  • Lino’s son Lucio Liviabella (*1933 in Venice) is violist and violinist—and Hans Liviabella’s father. Finally,
  • Lucio’s son, Hans Liviabella (born in Turin / Torino) now is concertmaster in the OSI (since 1997) and leader of the Quartetto Energie Nove.

As Hans Liviabella explained, this piece brought us back into Malipiero’s time—albeit totally different in character. It is intense, very expressive, coherent and atmospheric. Harmonically the music more advanced than Malipiero’s, especially around the dense climaxes. However, in the softer, lyrical parts it felt more harmonious, late-romantic style: interesting music, for sure, and a good choice to end the concert!



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