Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F Major
Salvatore Emanuel Borrelli: Viola
Fausto Cigarini: Violin
Lorenzo Cosi: Cello
Sara Pastine: Violin
Giovanni Bietti: Host
Another Sunday evening in Rome, another music lesson organized by l’Accademia Filarmonica Romana and Rai Radio 3, and recorded for posterity for those who couldn’t be in sala Casella, during which eminent local composer, pianist, musicologist and advisor Giovanni Bietti extensively explained in layman’s terms the connections between some of the string quartets composed at the end of 17th century and beginning of the 18th century in Vienna and some that were written about a century later in locales as varied as Paris, Prague and Budapest, and Vienna.
Last Sunday, our third and penultimate music lesson featured Joseph Haydn and Maurice Ravel, who both showed a keen interest in and prodigious skills at using music as spoken language. And while that connection did sound a bit more abstract than what we had been studying until then, that also sounded like a very exciting topic to dig in. Moreover, to assist us on our path to enlightenment, we would have the young but already much experienced Quartetto Leonardo, who stood out from their predecessors by playing standing up, except for their cellist, and by still using paper sheet music.
As the session was about to start, I was noticing that the concert space was not quite as crowded as it had been in the past, but far from seeing it as a sign of decreasing interest in the program, I saw it more as a sign of increasing interest in the fate of the AS Roma soccer team who was playing at the same time at the nearby Olympic Stadium. (The endless stream of excited people wearing red and yellow jerseys I found myself walking against on my way to sala Casella left little doubt about what the top priority in Rome was last Sunday.)
For the rest of us in the concert hall, the lesson got underway with Haydn, which was the logical thing to do not only because he preceded Ravel chronologically, but also because he was by all accounts the official father of the string quartet, giving the genre its final form and complete legitimacy, and composing many elegant and witty ground-breaking works in the process. Mozart, his most direct heir, may be more famous, and for good reasons too, but there is no doubt that when it comes to the string quartet as we know it and love it, Joseph Haydn was the real OG.
As undisputed proof, we had his Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, which the Quartetto Leonardo, after having teased us with short tidbits to illustrate Bietti’s numerous points, played with much finesse and spirit, in pure Haydn fashion. The various motive transformations and other compositional tricks are so smartly crafted, and the musicians were so good at deciphering them, that the whole performance was a graceful and scintillating experience all the way to the final joke, an unexpected series of false endings that surely couldn’t help but bring a smile to even the least receptive audience.
Bietti having determined that scheduling an intermission to avoid having nearby church bells included in the recording was useless due to the unpredictability of said bells, we moved right from Haydn to Ravel, himself a huge fan of Haydn’s œuvre in general, and his symphonies more particularly. Considered by many to be France’s all-time most gifted composer, he had an extraordinary roller-coaster of a professional journey, from his unconventional ideas getting him into trouble at the Paris Conservatory to his relentless intellectual curiosity expanding the language of music. In short, there is hardly a dull moment when it comes to his body of work.
And in fact, the superb performance we heard of his one and only string quartet by the Quartetto Leonardo on Sunday eloquently highlighted the profuse inventiveness to be found in the solidly classical structure. Quirky elements, such as the delightful pizzicatos, the hot flamenco rhythms and the sensual Andalusian melody reminded us that Spain was all the rage in France back then, the Prussian war having spoiled the French’s relations with their neighbors to the East. But then again, even politics could not completely trump (Ha!) the higher power of music, and a fleeting hint of a Viennese waltz could indeed be detected when you least expected it.
And that was not all. As if to make the evening a complete success, the predictably unpredictable church bells tolled during a pause between two movements. And AS Roma won.