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Rossetti String Quartet (Photo: Barbra Porter)
Raw and Elegant: Rossetti String Quartet Review
By Gary R. Lemco
AS PART OF THE SUNSET CONCERTS at the Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, California, the Rossetti String Quartet—Henry Gronnier and Sara Parkins, violins; Thomas Diener, viola; and Eric Gaenslen, cello—performed a scintillating concert Friday, April 20, 2012 of music by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Beethoven. When the Rossetti offered their one encore, the slow movement, Adagio, from Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 44, No. 3, the enthusiastic audience felt thoroughly sated by a course of rough, raw, but elegantly ennobled music here complemented by a lullaby of extraordinary pathos.
The Rossetti Quartet sound is not particularly “pretty,” but if the players favor an edgy tone and feral energy, it compensates in supplying what might be deemed a furnace or kiln of musical magma’s becoming shaped and formed before our eyes, as though they took a less refined but more intimate part in the creative process. Appropriately enough their program opened with Mozart’s String Quartet in C Major, K. 465 “Dissonant,” (1785), the last of a series of works dedicated to Joseph Haydn. The Adagio section, playing Cs in the cello against A-flat, E-flat, and A in the other strings created an other-worldly affect that eventually resolved itself into a bristling Allegro of symphonic resonance in which whole tones scales, fourths and fifths alternated. Gaenslen’s broad cello tone found its complement in the stinging concertante line from violinist Gronnier. That same rich athleticism marked the suavely melodic Menuetto and Trio third movement, the latter of which, in C Minor struck me as particularly opulent in colors. The generally happy tone of the music returned in the Molto allegro last movement, which had the Rossetti’s realizing swooping and explosive gestures to bring closure to an ever-audacious Mozart opus. Haydn had remarked, regarding the “errant ways” of the first movement dissonances, “If Mozart wrote [them] he must have meant it.”
The Rossetti then explored the often cruel and anguished labyrinths of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp Minor (1960), virtually a requiem to the composer’s late wife Nina, who had died in 1954. Incredibly compressed, the music takes a cyclic turn, utilizing a three-note “fate” motif that transforms from light irony to savage condemnation. Sometimes, without the first violin, the three remaining strings entered haunted palaces where one hears laughter but feels no mirth. When the strings played pizzicato, we heard melancholy or grotesque balalaikas in a desert. We might hear the influence of late Beethoven and of Bartók, but the icy ostinati and shivering sliding notes, say in the Lento movement, assumed the Russian melancholy that belongs solely to Shostakovich. The Allegro last movement literally invaded the space of the second movement, spiteful in its downward gestures, then suddenly erupting into a frenzied, manic fugue, less a procedure than a “visualization” of ignorant armies on a darkling plain. The harshness of the existential irony only increased when the Rossetti moved to a slow version of the first movement theme, having become a waltz or dirge, all the time resounding with violist Thomas Diener’s resonant or raspy throat-tone, a kind of vocal cancer’s eating at the few good memories that remain.
So it was with some “poetic justice” that the evening’s final work be Beethoven’s tenth or “Harp” Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74 (1809), so designated for its arpeggiando pizzicato filigree in the first movement as it works its way from E-flat to A-flat, which is also the key of the Adagio. Beethoven interrupts the short flights of fancy in the first violin with polyphony from the complementary players. If violinist Gronnier—a Francescatti pupil—suffered some interference early in the movement, the coda allowed him solo virtuoso status, as he let fly a miniature concerto whose texture thickened to symphonic status at the close. Meandering but lovely, the Adagio ma non troppo offered a sweet cello line from Gaenslen—by the way a pupil o Aldo Parisot—innocently melancholy. The C Minor Scherzo: Piu presto quasi prestissimo in pure Rossetti lava fully cognizant of the Fate Symphony in C Minor, but without the horns. At its most fervent, Miltonian intensity, the music declared “Non serviam!” with a vehemence allotted to Satan, Hamlet, and Ahab. But rather than some inflated Finale, Beethoven opts for an ingenuous theme and variations on an accented Allegretto tune, in the course of which the viola has a solo and the cello constant triplets. Quite a delicate foil this coda, a sheepskin proffered by former wolves.
PS: At a sit-down post-concert dinner, the artists shared with me their pedagogy, including violist Thomas Diener’s amazing memories of having been coached by a blind William Lincer. Gronnier recalled that all Zino Francescatti ever wanted to be was a gardener! His wife “made him do it!” ♫
Dr. Gary R. Lemco is a reviewer for Classical
Music Guide. He resides in California.
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