Gioacchino Rossini's sonatas are a special treat. They were composed when he was twelve years old during a vacation at his friends' house. For the young Gioacchino, not yet adolescent, composing the sonatas was just a children's game. He had to make do with what was available. These sonatas are not for the usual quartet formation: two violins, a viola and a cello. A double bass replaces the viola. Thus, the sound is somewhat darker than in most quartets. Rossini's sonatas are seldom played because they call for this rather unusual quartet formation.
On 18 February 2019, I had the pleasure of listening to three of the sonatas and to a cello-bass duet played by the Red4Quartet in a very special location: Il Teatro di Documenti. This theatre is made up of a few halls built over one another inside the Monte dei Cocci (the mountain of the broken pots). Several centuries ago, the ancient Romans used to throw their broken pots in this place, then at the border of the town but now not far from the city center. The outcome was a little hill, covered by earth and grass.
In the 1980s three artists - musician Giuseppe Sinopoli, stage director Luca Ronconi and set designer Damiano Damiani - obtained the license to make a theatre inside the hill. It is quite unusual and with a perfect acoustic.
The 'great hall' can host an audience of some sixty spectators. The others house from fifteen to twenty-five listeners. Therefore, the program must be geared to a small but sophisticated audience. The theater has a nine month schedule of plays, marionette performances and even simplified operas. Within this overall program, a private group uses the theatre for a cycle of chamber music quartets on a theme. In 2019, the theme is L'ospite grato or 'the grateful host'; this is intended to be a quartet with a formation different from usual. This is the rationale for Rossini's sonatas with a double bass in lieu of the viola.
The performers are the young ensemble Red4Quartet, four instrumentalists from the symphony orchestra of the National Santa Cecilia Academy: Marlène Prodigo and Lavinia Morelli playing violins, Sara Gentile on cello and Anita Mazzantini on double bass. Over the last ten years, this ladies' quartet has made a name for itself and has performed in several festivals and even in the House of Parliament to celebrate Women's Day. The ensemble often plays contemporary music.
Let us go back to young Rossini. The program included Sonata No 1 in G, the Duet for cello and double bass in D, Sonata No 3 in C and Sonata No 4 in B flat. As an encore, the ensemble offered a capriccio by Astor Piazzolla.
The natural question to ask is if and how these sonatas anticipate Rossini's adult music. They do at some moments, such as the Allegro of Sonata No 1 and the Allegretto of Sonata No 4, as well as the Duet for cello and double bass. However, overall they are more in line with late eighteenth century Italian chamber music such as that composed by Giovanni Paisiello and Giovanni Pacini. Nonetheless, they are fresh and pleasant to listen to and, I guess, to perform.
The Red4Quartet was applauded warmly. Then there was a surprise; after the concert, audience and performers moved to a different hall to a buffet of delicious hors d'oeuvres and wine. A very special musical evening.