Rockport Festival salutes Verdi but Giannini quintet steals the show

June 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Soprano Naomi O’Connell performed songs of Verdi Friday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.

When you think of chamber music, Verdi’s name is probably not the first that comes to mind.

But he was the focus of Friday night’s concert at Shalin Liu Performance Center, where the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, in its own bicentennial tribute to the composer, offered an intriguing program of Verdi vocal works and the String Quartet in E minor.

The jewel of the evening, however, was a piece not from Verdi’s hand, but by Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966), the American-born Milan-trained composer who inherited the older master’s skill for sweeping melody.

In the musical landscape of the early twentieth century, Giannini’s style was conservative.  His music, rooted in the romantic tradition, is memorable for its Italianate lyricism and rich orchestral writing. His style especially suited the stage and radio, and he earned a reputation for his operas The Scarlet Letter and Taming of the Shrew.  

Giannini’s little-heard Quintet for Strings and Piano (1932), the final work on Friday’s concert, contains many lush moments. Its three movements are chock-full of grandiose melodies, Rachmaninoff-like symphonic textures, and phrases of brooding depth.

Bringing the piece alive was pianist Adam Neiman, who performed the music’s cascading, spacious, and thunderous passages with aplomb. Fine string playing matched his approach. Together, Joana Genova (violin), Heather Braun (violin), Ariel Rudiakov (viola), and Sophie Shao (cello) sensitively handled the first movement’s many shifts of mood. The glassy textures of the second and driving rhythms of the third beamed from the strings’ silvery tone and crystalline technique. Shao’s expressive playing brought shape and depth to the yearning cello lines in these movements.

The string players offered an equally focused reading of Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor (1873). The composer penned the quartet, his only work in the medium, while overseeing a Naples production of Aïda. The often self-deprecating Verdi, believing the piece to be a trifle, set up its premiere for a private gathering of friends.

Still, the quartet is finely crafted and contains memorable melodies and rich contrapuntal dialogue spread between the instruments. The first movement glistened with crisp playing from Genova, Braun, Rudiakov, and Shao, though here they performed with a somewhat hushed and distant tone. The ensemble provided more weight and dynamic range to the coquettish second movement, which moves between sweet aria-like melodies and more urgent contrapuntal episodes.  Likewise, the third comprises a mix of furious and more leisurely lyrical passages. Here too, Shao’s solo lines sang with a lovely, rich cello tone. The quartet offered a lithe reading of the final movement’s colorful fugue.

Even in a chamber concert, it’s impossible to ignore Verdi’s vocal music. In addition to operas, the composer penned a handful of works for voice and piano. And like his memorable arias, the melodies of La Seduzione, Stornello, and Brindisi reflect the drama of the texts.

Stornello (1869), a brief song containing dramatic pauses, a wide dynamic range, and nimble vocal lines, tells of a strong woman determined to be free from the shackles of a single lover. And Brindisi (1845), unlike the well-known drinking aria from La Traviata, cheerfully suggests that the only way out of life’s darkness is the bottle.

For each, Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell sang with plush tone and graceful expression, performing La Seduzione (1839) with a strong, ringing tone. But her uniform approach left little room for her to explore the darker side of the song’s character, an impregnated innocent girl who dies from shame. For each song, pianist Keun-A Lee supplied shapely and robust accompaniment.

Most colorful was O’Connell and Lee’s rendering of Vieni! T’affretta from Macbeth. In this aria, Lady Macbeth reveals her intent to push her ambitious husband to usurp the throne of Scotland. With raw power and focus, O’Connell made the twisted Lady Macbeth loom large in the intimate setting of the concert hall.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival continues with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and pianist Anton Nel in works by Mozart, Pärt, Ravel, Falla, and Piazzolla 8 p.m. Saturday at Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391 

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