I Musici: highly accomplished performances of mainly light-weight music

New Zealand International Arts Festival and Chamber Music New Zealand

Serenata Italiana

Rossini: Sonata a quattro no.1 in G  and Une Larme
Donizetti: Allegro in C
Paganini: Il Carnevale di Venezia
Marco Enrico Bossi: Tre Intermezzi Goldoniani Op.127
Respighi: Aria per strumenti ad arco
Luis Bacalov: Concerto Grosso for I Musici’s 60th anniversary
Nino Rota: Concerto per archi

I Musici di Roma (Antonio Anselmi, violin; Ettore Pellegrino, violin; Pasquale Pellegrino, violin; Claudio Buccarella, violin; Gianluca Apostoli, violin; Antonio de Secondi, violin; Massimo Paris, viola; Silvio Di Rocco, viola; Vito Paternoster, cello; Pietro Bosna, cello; Roberto Bambioli, bass; Francesco Buccarella, keyboard)

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 28 February 2012, 7.30pm

I Musici is famed for its recordings, particularly a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons made early in the group’s career, which helped to create the great popularity of these concertos.

The musicians are aided by the fine instruments they play.  There was one Amati violin, two Guaneri, and a Storioni cello.  Most of the violins and the two violas were made in the seventeenth century; both cellos were from the 18th century.

For a group such as this to be celebrating its 60th year is a considerable achievement.  Of course, none of the original members are still part of I Musici, but it has maintained its place in the musical pantheon throughout all these years.  This is the group’s first visit to New Zealand.  A nice touch of welcome was the generous flower arrangement in the colours of the Italian flag.

The concert might have been better to have been held in the Town Hall, but apparently there was another Festival event going on there.  Patrons were seated only in the downstairs of the Michael Fowler Centre, apart from a few rows in the centre block upstairs seating dignitaries, such as the Ambassador for Italy.  Even then, there were empty seats downstairs.   Some confusion was caused to patrons near me because numbers have disappeared from the seats.

The programme commenced with a familiar Sonata, in three movements.  Apparently written when Rossini was only 12 years old, this work was played by a slightly smaller group than the full ensemble.  The opening sound from I Musici was a little too brittle at times for romantic music, but it soon settled down into an open, bright sound (as the leader, Antonio Anselmi described it in a radio interview).  The group’s magnificent cohesion, despite no conductor at the front, is remarkable, as is the players’ precision, noteworthy in their pizzicato as much as in their bowing.

The three-part moderato first movement, with the same theme for first and third, was a pleasant introduction to the concert.  The slow movement had, despite its tempo designation of andantino, much sprightly music.  A few times only, there was not total uniformity of intonation.  The final movement, allegro, fairly skipped along.

Another short Rossini work followed: Une Larme [The Tear]: theme and variations for cello and strings.  The soloist, Pietro Bosna, has a superb command of his instrument.  The harpsichord was used in this item, plus the additional violin and viola joined the band.  The harpsichord sound did not come through well, from its placement at the back of the right-hand side of the stage, behind the cellos and bass.  The lower tones especially could not be heard – and I was sitting only about a dozen rows back from the stage, in the centre block.

A slow, solemn introduction from the cello, with a few chords on the keyboard began the work.  An eloquent, rich cello solo followed, but the accompaniment from the other players was not particularly distinguished.  The music then developed into a fast-paced virtuoso piece, splendidly played with wonderful tone and technique from the soloist; the piece ended in gaiety.

Donizetti’s Allegro in C, like the first Rossini work, dates from his extreme youth.  It evinced a very operatic opening, as though it were the introduction to an aria or an  operatic story.  The theme was quite lovely, followed by decorations to its melody.  The tone of the orchestra had largely settled down by now.  This work, though brief, had more substance to it than had the preceding pieces.

Paganini followed; the piece is a theme and variations for violin and strings, with Antonion Anselmi playing the virtuosic solo part.  There was more than a passing physical resemblance between Anselmi and Paganini as depicted in the photograph (of a painting) on the page of the programme.

The theme is perhaps rather a trite one; in English, the jolly tune ‘My hat, it has three corners’, but apparently in Italy it is a Neapolitan song ‘O mamma, mamma cara’.   As the programme note said, Paganini ‘varies it using pretty much every technique known to a violinist.’

One would expect such a work to be flamboyant, utilising a range of astonishing effects, and indeed it was.  There was little for the other players to do while Anselmi went through the variations that employed a huge amount of double-stopping, glissandi, left and right hand pizzicato in the same phrases, octaves, and so on.  Certainly the playing had flair and confidence, but also humour, and bird-like sounds – all demonstrating astonishing technique.  It was a performance, indeed.

After the interval, the strings (without harpsichord) played Bossi’s Tre Intermezzi Goldoniani, written between 1901 and 1905..  Each of the three movements was quite short, and incorporated more light and shade than most of the previous pieces in the programme.  The opening ‘Gagliarda’ was lively and tuneful, while the ‘Serenatina’ featured much pizzicato, then a violin duo followed by a violin solo with a wistful theme, over more pizzicato.  Finally there was ‘Burlesca’.  It began with more of a dance feel to it than had the other two movements.

More well-known is Ottorino Respighi.  The Aria per strumenti ad arco was written at the end of his student days, presumably before 1905.  Its nostalgic opening theme had rich harmony; the players produced a lush sound.  The music ebbed and flowed, and became very romantic.  It was more sombre and not as frothy as some of the music earlier in the concert, and therefore was more satisfying.

We then came to the meat of the programme: Luis Bacalov’s work written especially for this anniversary year of I Musici.  The harpsichord was used in this three-movement work.   The leader introduced the music, and then there were sturdy, gutsy chords in a firm, march-like sequence.  Anselmi played flights of fancy above, while strong rhythms continued in the accompaniment.  Some of these airborne fancies were worthy of Paganini.  The cellos got their own little cadenza at the end of the movement.

The andante had a medieval-sounding solemn opening, then the solo violin turned it into a romantic passage.  Steady pizzicato from the bass underpinned all.  There were echoes of baroque music in the steady beat, the cadences, and the use of the harpsichord.  Albinoni was in there somewhere, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

It was certainly an appropriate work for this group’s anniversary.  There were lovely and elegant touches for the soloist, and for viola, the later having some fine solo passages, but basically the music was fairly straightforward, with touches of a film score about it.

The allegro finale had a brilliant yet folksy opening from Anselmi, a splendid cadenza, then another echo of Albinoni in a similar march tempo to that used in the opening of the work.  Some harmonic innovation arrived, but there was much repetition.  However, it was not minimalism, because there was constant variation too, but in a narrow span, like some of the Paganini music we heard in the first half.

The item on the programme that provided the most satisfaction was the Concerto per archi by Nino Rota, written for I Musici in 1964-65.  The opening of the Preludio first movement featured multiple layers of music, not mere accompaniment to solos, creating a most pleasing effect.  The movement developed in a turbulent mood.

The scherzo second movement had a quicker pace and a lighter mood.  All was most beautifully played, with astonishing precision.  A solo from the leader in the middle of the movement was one of many interesting features of the work.  The music modulated between keys, yet it was a cohesive whole.  This was great idiomatic writing for strings.  It was undoubtedly twentieth century music, but was neither harsh nor repetitive.  It reminded me at times of Benjamin Britten’s music.

The lilting opening of the third movement ‘Aria’ seemed uncertain as to its home key; the music had a questioning feel about it.  Another solo passage was replied to by the cello, but the uncertainty remained.  Things became more passionate, but the range remained fairly narrow.  Then more urgency led to the quiet, gradual arrival of assurance in the solo lines, though the music remained sombre until the end.  This movement also had shades of Britten about it.

By contrast, the Finale had a lively start, with strong rhythms and repetitive phrases, which reached fever pitch.  This was truly the most interesting work of the evening.

Applause was rewarded by a movement from the ‘Winter’ concerto of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played at a crisp, energetic pace, to the delight of the audience.

Overall, the programme seemed excessively light and frothy for a Festival presentation.  I was tempted to think that the programme was somewhat patronising: pops for the culture-starved Antipodeans?  Rota redeemed it from such considerations.   However, it must also be said that most of the music on the programme was unfamiliar, and interesting as unknown compositions of known composers.

There is no doubt about the accomplishments of I Musici.  The question is rather about the programme: was it appropriate for an International Festival of the Arts?  Or for Chamber Music New Zealand for that matter  although it was certainly suitable for an Italian ensemble of this size and composition.  The programme will be repeated at nine other centres around the country.