Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote his six string sonatas in 1804 at the age of 12. I first heard them, at about this time of year exactly 40 years ago in an outdoor concert in southern France, played by I Solisti Veneti, under the baton of Claudio Scimone. Their recording of them put the works on classical music listeners’ radar screen for the first time, and on many classical music radio stations’ playlists for a decade thereafter. This was, of course, the string orchestra arrangement of them, and Scimone led them at a brisk, upbeat tempo that was captivating and energizing, emphasizing their primarily melodic nature. Saturday’s Mohawk Trail Concert performance (a repeat of Friday evening’s) featured the last, in D major in its original scoring: two violins, cello, and double bass (This instrumentation is the explanation for their being called string sonatas, not string quartets, of course.); two high with low and lower, but no middle voices, supplied respectively by Joel Pitchon, professor at Smith College; Masako Yanagita, concertmaster of the Springfield Symphony; Marie-Volcy Pelletier, adjunct professor at Smith; and Salvatore Macchia, professor at UMass Amherst and also a composer. These musicians may not have the fame of I Solisti Veneti, but they are of an equivalent caliber, and gave an impeccable, carefully nuanced, and brilliant performance that revealed details the larger ensemble could not bring out, allowing one better to appreciate the variety as well as the vigor of Rossini’s youthful accomplishment, simple and elementary though it is. The last movement: Tempesta – Allegro recalls without copying Vivaldi’s famous Tempesta di mare concerto for violin, and again this original scoring makes details apparent that are hidden in the arrangement for the larger ensemble.
Three sets of songs by two composers for whom this is a milestone-marking year concluded the first half. Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) died 50 years ago. Tenor William Hite of UMass Amherst partnered by pianist Estela Olevsky, Emerita of UMass Amherst, offered two free-standing (not extracted from sets or cycles) representative samples: “Tu vois le feu du soir” (1938) setting a free verse text by Paul Éluard and “Montparnasse” (1941-45) to a free verse text by Guillaume Apollinaire. They followed with a set of three English Folksong Settings from 1947 by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), this year’s birth-centennial honoree: “The Plough Boy,” “The Foggy, Foggy Dew,” and “O Waly, Waly,” the latter two perhaps his most famous ones. They closed with Britten’s 5-song set of poems by W.H. Auden, On This Island, Op. 11 (1937), which do not really offer a continuous narrative which might be called a cycle either. The diversity of the choices allowed Hite to reveal his range; he is not a ‘park and bark’ singer; he nuanced his performance vocally and gesturally, ranging from a nearly inaudible pianissimo to a resounding forte; his diction was also impeccable, precise, and clear. Olevsky followed suit impeccably in a very pleasing collaboration.
The second half of the recital was devoted to Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901)–our birth-bicentennial honoree–sole known chamber work, his Quartet in E Minor for Strings from 1873, which according to violinist Yanagita, Verdi composed in a hotel room while the rehearsal of an opera was being delayed. Pitchon was the second violin, Pelletier was again the cellist, with Ronald Gorevic, principal violist of the Springfield Symphony and professor at Smith, supplying the middle voice. One hears this piece from time to time on the radio, but I don’t recall ever having heard it live before. This is not a quartet with anything like a Beethovenian rigor. Not surprisingly, though, many of the melodies sound like music for opera arias and many of the gestures and endings sound operatically dramatic as well. It has a great deal of charm, and the performance evoked enthusiastic and extended applause from the clearly pleased audience.
I am personally always struck, every time I hear it, by the mellow warmth of Pelletier’s William Forster cello. The name of this 18th century (1739-1808) English luthier who had connections with Haydn is not as well known as those of Guarneri or Stradivarius, but his products have a truly lovely sound. Gorelic plays a Forster viola, which made the blend here especially pleasant. For a few years they played in a string trio with Pitchon (Pelletier’s husband) that they named in honor of the luthier. This concert was a lovely beginning for what promises to be an interesting season of works by composers for whom this year marks the milestone of a significant life date.