Reversing Rossetti's Plan 

Rossetti String Quartet
Ensemble Music Society
Indiana History Center
March 21

String quartets can offer as much beauty and profundity as any musical genre you can name. But all too many string quartet groups engaged by the Ensemble Music Society are given to following the Plan: start with a Classical quartet — Haydn, Mozart or one of the six Beethoven Op. 18 quartets — to “warm up” with. Then follow with a Modern, contemporary or avant-garde offering and conclude with a “safe” Romantic quartet.

The trouble with the Plan is that the greatest string quartets (two violins, viola and cello) come from the Classical and post-Romantic eras. The 10-year-old, all-male Rossetti String Quartet regrettably fell victim to the Plan in its first Ensemble appearance last Wednesday. The program, in order: Mozart’s Quartet No. 20 in D (“Hoffmeister”), K. 499; Debussy’s single Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10; Dvorak’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat, Op. 105, his last. Of these, the most profoundly beautiful, most complex is the Mozart. Unlike the Rossettis, I’ll save that one for last.

Many feel that Debussy’s G Minor (1893) was inspired by Edvard Grieg’s sole quartet, also in G minor, from 1878. Though he only achieved a transitional aesthetic in his quartet, Debussy certainly contributed to the genre in a major way during that period, exploring new harmonic textures and extending the use of pizzicati.

Dvorak’s 14 string quartets represent the most ambitious quartet output from a major Romantic composer; yet none of them represent “great” Dvorak, whereas his F Minor and “Dumky” Piano Trios do. The composer’s Op. 105 (ironically written two years after the Debussy), as played by the Rossettis, was, after hearing the first two offerings, “boring” — as a musician friend seated with me stated — a description which I had to agree with.

The “Hoffmeister” (1786) came after Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets and before his three “King of Prussia” ones — and, though surprisingly ignored, is probably his greatest (though I would put his No. 16 in E-flat, K. 428 right up there with it). Filled with daring harmonies and other futuristic leanings for its time, K. 499 was a model for Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 3, also in D and easily the finest of the latter’s six early quartets.

Taking a speedy course throughout its four movements, the Rossetti players failed to “smell the roses,” meaning they skipped over many of Mozart’s sublime moments as though — for them — they didn’t exist. What they did well was to effect a near perfect ensemble blend on sustained harmonies, which they demonstrated throughout the evening. They also wrought their rapid passage work with seeming ease, though notes were dropped here and there.

A better alternative to the Plan is reversing the placement of the Mozart and Dvorak. Then, we might have had a more splendid concert.

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Tom Aldridge

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