November 4, 2013
by Stephen Smoliar, SF Classical Music Examiner
This season the San Francisco performances of the subscription concerts offered by the Ives Quartet (violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violist Jodi Levitz, and cellist Stephen Harrison) are taking place at Old First Church as part of the Old First Concerts series. That season began yesterday afternoon with a program entitled From Opera to Quartet. The program featured string quartets by two of this year’s “anniversary composers” of opera, the only mature purely instrumental work by Giuseppe Verdi (whose 200th birthday was celebrated last month on both October 9 and October 10 to account for any uncertainty), a four-movement string quartet in E minor composed in 1873, and the third published string quartet by Benjamin Britten (whose 100th birthday will be on November 22), his Opus 94 composed in 1975, not long before his death. These two major achievements were separated by “Crisantemi” (chrysanthemums), an elegy composed by Giacomo Puccini in 1890.
Verdi composed his string quartet in Naples “just to pass the time” (his words), due to delays in the revivals of Don Carlo and Aida. Jane Troy Johnson’s notes for yesterday’s program booklet observed that Verdi reportedly kept scores of the string quartets of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven by his bedside. (This might explain why one of the more vigorous choral passages in Simon Boccanegra has a motivic trace of the Presto movement from Beethoven’s Opus 130 in B-flat major.) That “bedtime reading” served him well in his 1873 quartet, particularly in the energetic fugue of the final movement. The opening movement, on the other hand, offers an intriguing allusion to Aida (which was clearly on his mind at the time of composition); and the second movement Andantino could easily be called a song (or aria) without words.
The Ives Quartet performance proved to be quite effective. One could appreciate the music as the work of a composer whose bread-and-butter came from opera but whose admiration for Beethoven could sustain his attention at the end of a “typical working day.” Mussumeli got to “play the role of the diva” in the second movement but never neglected her allegiance to the more “democratic” interactions required by this string quartet. That “democratic stance” emerged in full glory with the concluding fugue, which may well have inspired Verdi to conclude Falstaff with an even more elaborate instance of fugal composition.
Britten’s last years were spent in the shadow of death. He had a heart valve replaced at the National Heart Hospital in May of 1973 but suffered a slight stoke after the surgery, which affected his right hand. One of nurses at the National Heart Hospital moved to Aldeburgh in 1974 and took care of him until his death in December of 1976.
It was in this setting that he composed (with his weakened right hand) the Opus 94 quartet. As might be suspected, his final opera, Death in Venice, was much on his mind. The fifth movement of the quartet, which is entitled “La serenissima” (the most serene one), had been composed while Britten was in Venice (probably in 1956). The “serenissima” theme became part of the opera; and the quartet movement became the conclusion of Opus 94. In sharp contrast that movement is preceded by a raucous burlesque that reflected Britten’s friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich died on August 9, 1975, and his health had been deteriorating for several years. Thus, the shadow that death cast over Opus 94 was also being cast over Shostakovich at the same time.
One could thus appreciate the bleak rhetorical stance taken by the Ives Quartet in performing Opus 94. They even explained why they had selected to begin their program with it. Harrison observed that it is music that can only be followed by extended silence. However, because the mood is so dark, he felt that the break afforded by an intermission would be preferable to sending the audience home with the haunting qualities of Opus 94’s final measures as the most salient memory.
Ironically, the darkness “healed” by the intermission was followed by Puccini’s elegy. (In Italy the chrysanthemum is a flower of mourning.) Musically, however, this was a far briefer ternary-form composition that would probably have been called an intermezzo by Puccini’s Viennese predecessors. Many will recognize some of the thematic material, because Puccini subsequently used it in Manon Lescaut for several of that opera’s less cheerful moments. Johnson’s notes for the program book described those themes as “dripping with sentiment.” Fortunately, the Ives Quartet chose to dwell more on an informed account of Puccini’s approach to chromaticism than on playing up that sentimentality, providing an opportunity to appreciate not only the instrumental side of Puccini but also the impact of his capacity for brevity.