Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 5 in B flat Major, Sz. 102, BB 110
Tiziano Baviera: Violin
Sara Dambruoso: Viola
Alberto Franchin: Violin
Tommaso Tesini: Cello
Giovanni Bietti: Host
A couple of weeks ago, when I got to Sala Casella for the last music lesson of the four-lesson series organized by the Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3, I was informed by a very apologetic staff member that the session had been cancelled because one of the musicians had come down with COVID. Having just gotten over it myself, I could relate, and for a brief moment I even bonded with the bearer of bad news who had wrestled with it himself the previous month. Not all the news was bad though, as he told me that the lesson was tentatively rescheduled for December 3.
Fast forward two weeks, and last Sunday I was back in Sala Casella more determined than ever to make the most of my last lesson featuring Ludwig van Beethoven, representing the classical Viennese school, and Bela Bartok, representing the early 20th-century contemporary music, a couple that, come to think of it, may not look as odd as the previous ones in the series due to the obvious ground-breaking nature of their respective œuvre. Either that or I have finally gotten good at figuring out the link between the composers featured in the programs.
One thing I had not figured out though, was what “Noûs” in the name Quartetto Noûs meant, but a quick look at the well-established chamber ensemble’s website quickly informed me that it is the Greek word for “mind”, and can therefore be interpreted as “rationality” or “creativity”, both of which being evidently befitting when it comes to music. In any case, any musician willing to tackle the Grosse Fuge is a certified hero in my book, and I was very excited about being able to witness it first-hand, especially after having patiently waited two extra weeks for it.
Back in a well-filled Sala Casella that, for the first time, was bathing in a wonderful golden glow, eminent musicologist and genial host Giovanni Bietti started imparting a small portion of his vast knowledge of the Grosse Fuge (His book on the subject has just come out) to us, and the lesson was quite fascinating. Originally composed as the final movement of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, the Fugue did not meet the approval of the sophisticated audience of the Viennese salons, who promptly called it “Chinese music”, and not in a good way. A Russian critic even went as far as opining that Beethoven had lost not only his hearing, but also part of his mind. And the piece pretty much disappeared for over a century.
And then, starting in the early 20th century, with a little help from Glenn Gould, who considered it the most astounding work of the entire repertoire, and Igor Stravinsky, who regarded it as a forever contemporary marvel, the Grosse Fuge no longer aroused only incomprehension, but also wonder. After Bietti pointed out, and the Quartetto Noûs demonstrated, how Beethoven relentlessly played with theme versions, inversions, and tempos, we could only be on the team wonder. Eventually, a fierce performance of the entire movement only confirmed what Stravinsky always knew: The Grosse Fuge is indeed timeless, and its boldly experimental nature feels totally at home with the equally challenging music of Schoenberg, Berg, and… Bartok.
The transition was simply too good to pass, so we dived right into Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5, whose première took place in Washington, DC as part of a program also featuring – Surprise! – Beethoven’s Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge. Fact is, while Bartok’s quartet presented fancy theme inversions and mirror games between movements and within movements that clearly owed a lot to the Grosse Fuge, it also had quite a few tricks in its own sleeve. And that’s why, beside the nifty arrangement of the four outer movements around the central scherzo, the highly rhythmical composition, including some particularly infectious Bulgarian folk tunes, proved to be irresistibly clever and irresistible fun in the expert hands of the Quartetto Noûs on Sunday evening. and it concluded our lesson, and the lesson series, with a cool and memorable punch.