DaPonte’s Respighi a Home Run

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
May 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Two out of three ain’t bad. The theme of the DaPonte String Quartet’s most recent series was “Dino’s Hit List,” three of the favorite compositions of quartet violinist Ferdinand Liva. Of course, hit list has another connotation as well.

Before Sunday’s concert, at the Unitarian Universals Church in Brunswick, Liva did not say why he had selected Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, KV 589, a work composed for the King of Prussia, who was an ardent cellist, not a violinist.

The late work, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best. The DaPonte cannot play anything badly, but the writing seemed a little thin at times. It was improved by a fine cello melody during the Larghetto and in the final Allegro assai, a scherzo-like movement which reminded one of what Beethoven did with the traditional minuet.

What followed, however, was truly amazing-—the Quartetto Dorico, Op. 144 of Ottorino Respighi. The Dorian mode corresponds to a scale consisting of the white keys on a piano from “D” to “D”. It has also been called “Russian minor,” and Respighi may have encountered it during his studies in orchestral color with Rimsky Korsakov.

Respighi is best known for his atmospheric landscape portraits, such as “The Pines of Rome,” composed around the same time as the Quartetto. He was a member of string quartets and the Op. 144 uses his knowledge to great effect. The writing is orchestral, and the DaPonte was able to express it perfectly, raising the volume a notch or two without pushing the limits of the instruments.

The initial theme, played in unison, appears repeatedly, in transformation after transformation, ending in a triumphant fugue. In between, the feeling is pantheistic, like the music of Janacek, impressionistic, like Ravel or his own “Pines of Rome,” and sometimes archaic, like his “Ancient Airs and Dances.” But the quartet is by no means a pastiche. It holds together beautifully.

Respighi, a genius who deserves to be better known, seems to have devised a “third way” of advancing the art of composition without resorting to atonality or serialism. The quartet is full of magical effects; at one point the violin enters with a high-pitched bird whistle over a rustle like wind in trees, with absolutely startling clarity.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there came a masterful account of the Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 59, No. 2.

The other day, I was entranced by what Beethoven could do with the “V for Victory” motif of the Fifth Symphony. The E Minor Quartet shows what genius can do with a simple interval, also stated at the very beginning.

As just one example, the interval is treated as a heavily accented iamb on the first violin, serving as an accompaniment to the melody, and it is ravishing. The Russian folk song in the Allegretto, with its off-kilter rhythms, has been immortalized, and the quick march of the presto somehow evolves into a galloping horse.

The playing was spectacular and led to a rare standing ovation for the final concert of five throughout central Maine.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.