On Mario Davidovsky’s Quartetto #4

Like many of those who knew him and his work, I have been thinking of Mario Davidovsky often since his passing on August 23. Nothing speaks more powerfully than the music itself, but since counter)induction has been such a strong advocate for his music, and we have a platform on which to explore and share ideas, I wanted to take this opportunity to spend time listening to a c)i performance of one his pieces that I wasn’t previously very familiar with, and discovered their excellent live recording of his Quartetto #4 for clarinet and string trio. 

c)i’s performance of Davidovsky’s Quartetto #4 for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello beautifully captures many of the hallmarks that I listen for when I hear his music. His characteristic electronic music type analogues that he “re-orchestrated” for acoustic instruments are tightly woven and spring to life like sonic Rube Goldberg machines. Some great examples: the composite gesture of a Bartok pizzicato revealing a sustained tone at 0:18, creating a hybrid timbre; at 8:17 the high squeals followed by a skittering downward murmur (one could imagine these sounds trailing away across the stereo field in a spatialized speaker set up); at 11:18 the final burst of bombast, with a fleet clarinet gesture followed by a trill that sounds like tolling bells. c)i’s performance also does a wonderful job of bringing out Davidovsky’s compositional juggling act of contrasting characters, balancing the unfolding rhetorical argument while allowing each motive to evolve and change over the course of the piece.

In Quartetto #4, this motivic journey is heard most clearly through the evolution of the clarinet’s voice, which frequently retreats back to somber material between more active sections. In the introduction, Davidovsky lays out many of the characters that will be developed later in the piece, the whole of the commedia deIl’arte as he liked to say. Melodrama and sudden expressions of extroversion are very much a feature of his music and the players execute these with requisite energy but retain precision. I’ve noticed a consistent pattern in Davidovsky’s music of tempering those outbursts with introverted material directly afterward. We hear this in the contrast between the climactic material from ca. 10:00-10:36 and the tender music that directly follows, or also in the subsequent passionate passage from 10:55 to 11:24 and the eerie calm of the lone clarinet that comes on its heels. This ability to turn on a dime really makes Davidovsky’s music come alive and gives dimension to the multi-layered expressive component in his music. c)i’s performance is a compelling version of a powerfully lyrical piece that is late Davidovsky chamber writing at its best.