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CD Review: Quartetto Gelato
Aria Fresca 

Peter de Sotto: tenor, violin, & mandolin
Cynthia Steljes: oboe & English Horn
Claudio Vena: viola & accordion
George Meanwell: cello & guitar


Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto: "La donna e mobile" 2:23
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier Suite including "Di rigori armato il seno" 11:16
Jozsef Kossovits: Hungaria (traditional) 6:38
Giacomo Puccini: Turandot: Prelude and Aria "Nessun' dorma" 11:47
Claudio Vena: Tango Solitario 5;16
Charles Gounod: Faust: "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" 5:05
Antonio Pasculli: Gran Concerto su Temi dall'Opera I Vespri Siciliani de Verdi 13:58
Gioacchino Rossini: La Danza 3:07
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly: "Butterfly's Lament" 3:47

total time: 63:39
released: 1998

label: Marquis Classics
30 Kenilworth Ave.
Toronto, ON
Canada  M4L 3S3
888-627-6165 (toll free) or 416-690-7662
416-690-7346 (fax)

Review by Joseph Natoli:

Quartetto Gelato is a group that has arrived. A quick look at their web site and a look at the concert dates they have fulfilled this year, will make it quite obvious that this group is in high demand. One moment they are in Milan and the next they are in New York at the most well known concert halls. I had first heard of Quartetto Gelato three to four years ago when I came across one of their CDs on display in the classical section of a big name electronics store. It was at one of those now popular listening stations, where a pair of headphones and about 6 different buttons allow you to choose some of the store's most recent CD offerings. I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the CDs with an accordion boldly on the front cover, along with an intriguing name, "Quartetto Gelato", and an equally intruguing program. I couldn't resist listening to a few tracks! Everything I was able to audition on that demo CD was a delight and it is with equal delight that I now bring you a review of a newer 1998 release, Aria Fresca, from this intelligent and innovative ensemble.

Aside from some wonderful performances, Aria Fresca is also a very intelligent marketing endeavor since the selections within will appeal to a very wide group of tastes, and when used in live performances, will enable the quartet to get into any concert hall and/or opera house in the world. The group also seems to understand how important it is to have the vocal complement to an otherwise stellar instrumental setting. The fact that they each double on another instrument or two, makes them extremely flexible and capable of doing a large variety of repertoire and arrangements. The tenor in the group, Peter de Sotto, even doubles (in addition to his singing) on violin and mandolin! The only potential drawback to forming a group with this kind of instrumental flexibility is when someone wants to leave the ensemble. Obviously the arrangements have been very customized for the abilities of each ensemble member, so when one person needs or wants to leave, there is a great burden on the rest of the ensemble to find someone who doubles on those exact instruments, has that same level of talent and enthusiasm, and can fit in with the chemistry of the rest of the musicians instantly. This pressure is especially inherent with the name they have chosen for their group, because if they do not find the same type of personnel replacements, they may need to become Quintetto, Sextetto, or Septetto Gelato...which just doesn't have that same ring! Luckily when the backbone of the group, Claudio Vena (the group's arranger, violist, and accordionist), recently called it quits, they were able to replace him with Joseph Macerollo, one of Canada's leading accordionists in all genres. I will certainly be looking forward to any new recordings released by the new Quartetto Gelato. But for now let's talk about Aria Fresca, a very excellent compact disc compilation and one that has definitely put this group on the map.

The first track of the CD starts out with the very familiar selection from the opera Rigoletto: La Donna e Mobile. The arrangement is done by the entire ensemble, and like all the arrangements on these tracks is very crisp and clean. Peter de Sotto's astounding tenor voice makes an immediate impact and is absolutely wonderful. Again, a very smart marketing move to start the CD out with a globally familiar and well-liked tune that will appeal to just about anyone listening. The only negative on this and a few other tracks, in reference to the accordion, is the very heavy and staccato "boom-chank-chank" left hand Claudio Vena chooses to play. This is the only aspect of Mr. Vena's playing that makes it obvious the accordion is not his main instrument.

While we are on the subject of arrangements, there are a few that deserve special attention. Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier Suite (arranged by third party arranger Stephen McNeff) is an incredible arrangement for this ensemble that gets the absolute most mileage possible. You really have to remind yourself that you are listening to a quartet here, since Mr. McNeff gets some very big orchestral sound from these four musicians. Der Rosenkavalier Suite is also one of the three most extensive arrangements in the collection. Peter De Sotto is without a doubt the "most valuable player" of this track, as you will hear with some fantastic and sensitive violin playing, and then again when his rich tenor voice enters about 3/4 of the way through. Simply said, he sings with depth and heart and literally soars to those high notes. The rest of the group is just as breathtaking however. For example, there is much agile rubato playing (pushing and holding back on the tempo), and the group reacts to these changes instantaneously as if they were one performer (much like an autumn flock of birds all turning direction at the same time in mid-flight). Very tight integration! The oboist, Cynthia Steljes, who is incredible on other tracks that feature her, provides some very solid harmonic and orchestral assistance for the complex violin phrases. The recording quality of this arrangement deserves mention as well, since it is extremely crisp and clear, bringing out every detail of the music. The group's choice to record these selections in local Toronto churches was a smart move, since the natural reverb is a beautiful complement that most likely could not have been achieved with synthetic reverb in the studio atmosphere.

Another outstanding arrangement is Claudio Vena's orchestral interpretations of Puccini's Turandot: Prelude and Aria "Nessun' Dorma", where they are assisted by members of the Toronto Symphony. Not quite sure if Mr. Vena used the original orchestration from the composer and then added the Quartetto Gelato instrumentation on top of that, or if he executed the entire arrangement. Either way, the entrance of the orchestral timbres (especially the high and low brass, percussion, and extra strings) adds color and depth to this track, and sets the stage once again for the soaring voice of Mr. De Sotto. I had not been familiar with Turandot before, but this composition is filled with gorgeous melodies and will imbue the listener with a very memorable experience as it did for me, especially the ending which is spectacular!

As mentioned above, oboist Cynthia Steljes is another fine talent in Quartetto Gelato who performs brilliantly in both Pasculli's Gran Concerto su Temi dall'Opera I Vesprio Siciliani di Verdi and Kossovits' Hungaria. In the Gran Concerto, she is tossing off huge arpeggios and weaving intricate runs like they are nothing. Yet when called upon to perform with lyricism and sensitivity, she does not fail. Her pyrotechnics on Hungaria coupled with the violin part, again changing tempos in an instant in the rubato sections, make this piece and excellent showstopper. I also liked the group's ability to be honestly humorous in the liner notes with this quote:

"We thought there was a clever connection between this piece and the opera concept for the album. People who have followed our career will have shared with us the exciting process of discovery as our erroneous assumptions about the material are corrected by other people who actually know what they are talking about. The slow opening music, The First Love of Lavotta by Jozsef Kossovits, is so beautiful that we thought it must have been in an opera. We were wrong."
Finally, I would like to mention for all of you accordion enthusiasts that Claudio Vena's original composition Tango Solitario is a very original, clever, and endearing piece, very capable of sharing company with the other great arrangements and compositions on this CD. It's humor, passion, nostalgia, and craftiness are all reminiscent of Astor Piazzolla's tango compositions. It starts off cleverly with the accordion slow intro material being played as if from a scratchy record for about 30 seconds, then immediately into a distinct tango (very much like the Piazzola music used in the 1997 movie Twelve Monkeys). All musicians on this track render an authentic tango performance. There are very nice moments of give and take, climax and repose. I especially like the way Vena chose the cello as the rhythmic foundation for this composition, instead of his own left-hand accordion basses. The jazz chord at the end was a great accent and an excellent surprise. Just a superb, crafty, clever, and fun piece of music all around!

I'm not an especially big fan of opera and arias but this CD appealed to me very much. And if it can win me over, I'm certain that this group is rightfully winning fans all over the world. Quartetto Gelato certainly offers something to love for everyone, especially in an age when people are looking for something unique and different. I couldn't sum up this review any better than with the words of a reviewer in Eugene, Oregon, Fred Krafts of station KUGN:

"A classical quartet, Quartetto Gelato has a rock attitude...If only all groups were this charismatic...If Quartetto Gelato performs anywhere near you, run to see them."

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