An ardent Italian evening from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
It is a little astonishing that Giuseppe Verdi wrote 26 operas before delving into the string quartet genre in 1873—at age 60. After Aida cooled his interest in stage works, he wrote his Quartet in E minor in a Naples hotel room, but as with the opera, the premiere’s reception was discouraging, and the quartet was not revived again for three years.
The Orion String Quartet’s performance Friday night at Alice Tully Hall, coming at the end of an immensely satisfying Italianate program presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, showed why the work has remained popular. The opening Allegro presages the vitality of his last two operas, Otello and Falstaff, showing as they do, the composer’s surprisingly youthful vigor. In the second movement, a winsome waltz, the players found elegance and suave assurance, tempered by tiny nudges of rubato, leaving a sly suggestion of inebriation in their wake.
The gypsy dance that forms the Prestissimo third movement showed how easily Timothy Eddy can spin a cello line, and the energy caused spontaneous applause at the movement’s coda as violinist Daniel Phillips turned to smile and nod at the audience. The finale, which the program notes compare to the final fugue in Falstaff, was even more propulsive, even if the group was unable to maintain its usual spot-on intonation.
But before this came four delicacies, two by Puccini. The lush tone lavished on Crisantemi (1890) showed the group’s timbre at its finest, evoking the kind of rich string sound long prized in the Philadelphia Orchestra. In contrast, the Scherzo for String Quartet (1882) is a dark, scurrying waltz, displaying equal balance amongst the foursome. Perhaps its witches’ dance ambiance was prompted by the knowledge that Puccini adapted and used in Le Villi (“The Witches”), an early ballet he premiered in Milan in 1884.
The quartet also had great fun with Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade (1887), in effect a tarantella, inspired by a novella by the German writer Joseph Eichendorff, describing the adventures of a young violinist who leaves home. In the Orion’s hands, led by violinist Todd Phillips, the roguish spirit was intact, with a minimum of schmaltz, and a maximum of effervescence and charm.
Pianist Alessio Bax opened the evening with Mendelssohn’s Lied ohne Worte in G minor for Piano, Op. 19b, No. 6, “Venetianisches Gondellied” (1830), showing a lovely melancholy, as if visiting Venice on a pleasantly overcast day. Given Bax’s restraint, this brief postcard made one wish he had done one or two more from the set.
Steven Tenenbom, the Orion’s stellar violist, joined Bax for a relative rarity, Nino Rota’s Intermezzo for Viola and Piano (1945), one of his over 50 works of chamber music. It is a relatively straightforward score—melodic with broad lines that grow faster and faster as the tempo increases, and showed the soft amber hues of Tenenbom’s instrument. Like the viola role, the piano begins simply, escalating into more complex territory by the end, and Bax’s playing contributed both clarity and poetry.
But the prize of the night might have gone to violinist Paul Huang, who joined Bax for Respighi’s Sonata in B minor for Violin and Piano (1917), a work which really should be programmed more often. In the opening Moderato, its florid lines were emphasized by Huang’s coolness, though there was nothing cool about his sweetly singing tone. Bax offered an elegant introduction in the Andante, marked “espressivo,” before the duo found tenderness and delicacy.
In the Passacaglia finale, Bax laid out stentorian unison columns before Huang chimed in, only increasing in radiance as the piano’s filigree flowered into ever-more-Lisztian complexity. The final measures grow broader, and the two musicians seemed locked in intensity until the dramatic final flourishes.