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Hyperion Records

CDA67861/3 - Mozart: String Quintets
A Concert, 1730s by Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Pater (1695-1736)
Reproduced by permission of The Wallace Collection, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2010
DISCID: 610C4908 7010A408 620CD308
Total duration: 177 minutes 33 seconds


'The performances … are magnificently played throughout—conversational, argumentative, profoundly expressive, witty—and rank with the finest ever committed to disc' (The Sunday Times)

'The four quintets are among Mozart's richest chamber works. The Nash Ensemble's survey of all six pieces … is light in touch, with transparency of texture and clarity of part-playing given high priority' (The Irish Times)

String Quintets
Allegro moderato  [9'00]
Adagio  [8'07]
Allegro  [5'36]
Allegro  [11'36]
Andante  [3'56]
Allegro  [6'12]
Allegro  [12'28]
Andante  [8'52]
Allegro  [7'02]
Allegro  [14'00]
Adagio  [6'49]
Allegro  [5'05]
Allegro di molto  [10'31]
Andante  [8'02]
Allegro  [5'12]

The relatively novel instrumental combination which Mozart used for his string quintets (employing two violas) seems to have been inspired by a work by his friend and colleague Michael Haydn. Throughout his life Mozart loved the dusky sonority of the viola, always his instrument of choice when he played chamber music with friends. Beyond that, prompted by Michael Haydn’s charming, lightweight Notturno, he was evidently eager to explore a medium that enabled him to indulge his fondness for dark, saturated textures and rich inner-part writing.

The complete String Quintets is a enchanting body of chamber music, recorded here in a 3-disc set by the peerless Nash Ensemble.

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After tasting operatic success on his three Italian journeys of 1770–73, culminating in the triumph of Lucio Silla in Milan, Mozart felt increasingly stifled by what he regarded as the pettiness and provincialism of Salzburg. As he wrote to a family friend a few years later: ‘Salzburg is no place for my talent. In the first place the court musicians do not enjoy a good reputation; secondly one hears nothing; there’s no theatre, no opera!—and even if they wanted to stage one, who is there to sing?’ Barely had Wolfgang and his father Leopold arrived back in his home town in March 1773 than he was itching to be on the road again. In July father and son duly travelled to Vienna in the hope of securing a permanent post at the imperial court. Ten weeks later they would return to Salzburg empty-handed. Crucially, Leopold had reckoned without Empress Maria Theresa’s long-standing antipathy to what she saw as the vulgar Mozart travelling family circus.

Yet for all its professional frustrations, 1773 was a fruitful year for the seventeen-year-old Mozart. In Vienna he produced a set of string quartets, K168–173, under the influence of Haydn’s recent quartets Opp 9, 17 and 20. Autumn saw the composition of the ‘little’ G minor Symphony, K183, the earliest of his symphonies in the regular repertoire today. Then in December he wrote his first keyboard concerto, K175, and revised and completed a string quintet, with two violas, he had begun some time between his return from Italy and his Viennese sojourn. The immediate stimulus for this relatively novel instrumental combination (the numerous quintets Boccherini composed in Madrid from around 1770 all use two cellos) seems to have been a Notturno in C major by Mozart’s Salzburg friend and colleague Michael Haydn, younger brother of Joseph. Throughout his life Mozart loved the dusky sonority of the viola, always his instrument of choice when he played chamber music with friends. Beyond that, prompted by Michael Haydn’s charming, lightweight Notturno, he was evidently eager to explore a medium that enabled him to indulge his fondness for dark, saturated textures and rich inner part-writing.

Compared with the near-contemporary quartets, K168–173, with their often consciously ‘intellectual’ tone, the String Quintet in B flat major K174 wears an air of divertimento-like relaxation. It is also more spaciously conceived than the quartets. As Charles Rosen puts it in a superb chapter on Mozart’s string quintets in The Classical Style (Faber, 1971): ‘The classical feeling for balance demanded that the fuller and richer sonority of the quintet be given a larger framework … than was fitting for the string quartet.’ In the opening Allegro moderato (the tempo designation alone implies breadth) Mozart immediately takes advantage of his enhanced resources, presenting the long-breathed opening theme on first violin, supported by a nagging, accented figure from second violin and second viola in octaves, and then repeating it on first viola. Throughout the movement he contrasts solo passages, sonorous quasi-orchestral writing and (especially in the dramatic sequences of the development) more closely woven imitative textures.

In the Adagio, the key of E flat—in which strings sound at their most mellow—and mutes for all five instruments impart a soft sheen to the sonority. This is one of the loveliest slow movements from Mozart’s teens, growing from a unison arpeggio figure that then becomes an accompaniment to the eloquent theme begun by the first violin and continued by the second. Just before the theme’s return, the idyllic mood is disrupted by a passage of startling emotional power as first viola traces a contorted chromatic line beneath grinding suspensions from the violins.

The lusty minuet makes witty—and distinctly Haydnesque—sport with a little four-note figure, while in the trio second violin and viola softly echo phrases proposed by the first pair, a charming exploitation of the new medium. Mozart drastically revised the finale when he returned to the quintet at the end of 1773, inter alia adding a new theme at the outset and turning the original beginning into a subsidiary theme. The upshot is a movement of exhilarating verve and inventiveness, with the instruments now chattering in pairs, now combining in that free, informal counterpoint that Mozart had doubtless admired in Haydn finales like those of the quartets Op 17 No 6 and Op 20 No 4.

Not until the spring of 1787, after he had achieved mastery of the string quartet medium in the six ‘Haydn’ Quartets and the lone ‘Hoffmeister’ Quartet, K499, did Mozart return to the string quintet with a contrasted pair of works, K515 and 516. Although he had recently triumphed with Figaro in Prague, prompting the commission for Don Giovanni, this was a troubled period for the composer. His glory days as virtuoso-impresario were over. His father was now gravely ill, and his ‘best and dearest friend’ Count August von Hatzfeld, a fine amateur violinist, had recently died at the age of thirty-one. In April Mozart and his wife were obliged to leave their lavish apartment in the Domgasse for a cheaper one in the Viennese suburbs, a move acerbically noted by Leopold in a letter to his daughter Nannerl—his last recorded words about his son.

Mozart’s chief sources of income were now his modest salary as court Kammermusicus and the fees he earned from pupils and from the sale of manuscript copies and publication rights of his works, mainly chamber music. Purchasers of manuscript copies traditionally enjoyed privileged use of a work or set of works for a fixed period before publication. But with Mozart already being branded a ‘difficult’ composer in some quarters, he found few takers for the string quintets K515 and 516 and the quintet arrangement, K406, of the C minor Wind Serenade (eighteenth-century chamber works were usually sold in sets of three or six). After advertising the three string quintets in manuscript copies ‘finely and correctly written’, for the sum of four ducats, in the Wiener Zeitung of 2 April 1788, Mozart was forced to make the humiliating announcement shortly afterwards that: ‘As the number of subscribers is still very small, I find myself obliged to postpone publication of my three quintets until 1 January 1789.’ Mozart eventually sold the three works to the firm of Artaria, who issued K515 in 1789, K516 in 1790 and K406 in 1792, the year after the composer’s death.

Completed on 19 April 1787, the String Quintet in C major K515 is the most amply scaled of all Mozart’s chamber works. Its breadth and grandeur of conception, prompted by the richness of the quintet sonority, makes it a counterpart to two Olympian orchestral masterpieces in the same key, the Piano Concerto K503 and the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Rosen has rightly called the first movement ‘the largest sonata allegro before Beethoven’. Indeed, it prefigures Beethoven’s F major ‘Razumovksy’ Quartet, Op 59 No 1, in its evocation of vast, calm vistas, created by a succession of expansive themes against (for a classical work) unusually slow-changing harmonies. From the cello–violin dialogues of the opening theme, with the parts reversed when the theme is repeated in C minor, through the gorgeous chromatic deflections, to the exposition’s oscillating closing theme over a cello pedal (shades here of the Figaro overture shorn of its nervous energy), everything unfolds with Apollonian majesty. Exploiting the medium’s potential for rich polyphony, Mozart builds the development to a magnificent climax in an intricate double canon on the Figaro theme, with first violin imitated by cello, second violin by first viola. There is further polyphonic elaboration in the coda, whose serene spaciousness is in keeping with the proportions of the whole movement.

Whereas the first movement employs the five instruments in myriad permutations, the Andante—in sonata form without development—is in essence a love duet for first violin and viola, with increasingly florid arabesques that culminate in a rapturous quasi-cadenza. The mood is one of unsullied Arcadian bliss, like one of Mozart’s Salzburg serenades deepened and transfigured. In contrast with the surrounding movements, the minuet (placed before the Andante in some editions, as here) is a curiously evasive, unsettled piece, beginning tentatively with a ten-bar phrase (four bars plus six) which Mozart proceeds to develop in ever-changing textures. The trio, appreciably longer than the minuet, is just as extraordinary: its first fourteen bars sound like a gigantic, speculative upbeat to the Ländler tune played by the violins in octaves over an accompaniment suggestive of a village band.

The catchy contredanse melody that launches the finale has a similar popular flavour. But from this innocent opening Mozart constructs a complex sonata-rondo on a vast scale (539 bars) to balance the first movement. A leisurely procession of memorable ideas includes a second subject which deflects mysteriously from G major to E flat major. But it is the contredanse tune that dominates the discourse, fragmented and worked in ingenious contrapuntal combinations (including being turned upside down), right through to the canon between first violin and cello in the coda.

The contrast between the two quintets of spring 1787 prefigures that between the G minor and ‘Jupiter’ symphonies: the C major spacious and affirmative, its successor, the String Quintet in G minor K516, shocking in its intense pathos and chromatic disquiet, at least until the finale’s apparent ‘happy ending’. Commentators have linked the G minor quintet’s despairing tone to Count von Hatzfeld’s death and Leopold Mozart’s last illness (he died on 28 May, twelve days after Wolfgang entered the work in his thematic catalogue). Yet as always with the composer, the music transcends emotional autobiography.

The opening is the most disconsolate in all Mozart: a succession of sighing, broken phrases underpinned by chromatically drooping harmonies, heard first on the upper trio of instruments and then, with a deepened sense of fatalism, on violas and cello. As in the C major quintet, Mozart expands the formal dimensions by remaining in the home key far longer than was usual in 1787. Here, though, the effect is claustrophobic. Just as the music seems to be modulating to the major, it sinks gloomily back to G minor for the yearning second subject. Even when the theme is repeated in the long-awaited relative major key, B flat, chromatic inflexions, and urgent imitations from first viola, intensify rather than lighten the mood. This theme reaches an extreme pitch of dissonant anguish at the climax of the development, with successive entries grating against each other, before eventually subsiding in weary resignation in the coda.

To the first movement’s pathos and agitation the minuet adds a note of violence, with its disruptive syncopations, pauses and ferociously accented off-beat chords. No eighteenth-century minuet is further removed from the decorous courtly dance. The trio takes the minuet’s aching cadential phrase—played by first violin and repeated an octave lower, with a poignant melodic variation, by the second—and transforms and expands it in G major. As so often in Schubert, the major key here seems more heartbreaking than the minor.

Belying its serene, hymnlike opening, the Adagio ma non troppo, in E flat, with all the instruments muted (as in K174), is as disturbed as the first two movements. As early as the fifth bar the texture becomes strangely fragmented, with chromatic harmonies that grow still more tortuous in the transition to the second subject. This opens with an impassioned, plunging melody in B flat minor, broken by cries of pain deep in the second viola; then, after another dense chromatic thicket, the first violin euphorically reinterprets the B flat minor theme in B flat major, with the first viola in ecstatic imitation—one of the most breathtaking moments of emotional release in all Mozart.

As a discarded eight-bar sketch reveals, Mozart originally toyed with the idea of a G minor finale. Instead he wrote a G minor Adagio introduction of tragic eloquence: a halting, appoggiatura-laden arioso for the first violin, with desultory echoes for the cello, over the throbbing inner voices that were such a prominent feature of the first and third movements. After the music has reached an extreme point of stress, the Allegro’s unsullied G major comes as a necessary resolution of the work’s accumulated harmonic tensions. The main theme, a rarefied jig, recurs, rondo-like, at strategic intervals; and a contrasting theme seems like an affectionate parody of the opening movement’s yearning second subject. Yet, as in the ostensibly blithe finales of the Clarinet Concerto and late B flat Piano Concerto, K595, there is more than a hint of expressive ambiguity beneath the smiling surface to refute oft-repeated charges that the movement is too lightweight to balance the rest of the quintet.

Some time after completing K516, Mozart created a set of three quintets by transcribing his C minor Wind Serenade of 1782 or 1783—as the String Quintet in C minor K406. This more-or-less straightforward arrangement may simply have been a labour-saving ploy at a period when Don Giovanni was beginning to absorb his chief creative energies. Or Mozart may simply have wished to recast this darkest, most un-serenade-like of serenades for a more elevated medium. Those who know the original octet version (for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns) may miss the kaleidoscopic contrasts of wind tone. But without prior knowledge few would guess that the work was not conceived for string quintet, even if the textures (except in the minuet) are generally simpler, less polyphonic than in K515 and 516.

The opening Allegro is dominated by the various strands of its sombre opening theme. At the climax of the brief development Mozart takes a beseeching falling sequence originally heard on the three lower instruments and works it in searing contrapuntal imitation. As was Mozart’s wont in his minor-keyed compositions (in contrast to Haydn and Beethoven), the recapitulation cleaves to the minor throughout. The recasting and intensification of the lyrical E flat second subject when it returns in C minor is one of the most moving strokes in the work.

While the gently lilting Andante, in E flat, has a mellifluous, serenading charm (an unmissable foretaste here of the serenade in the same key in Così fan tutte), the minuet refutes its serenade origins with a truculent display of canonic ingenuity. At the opening the cello imitates the first violin at a bar’s distance, with the other instruments in support, making for some abrasive harmonic clashes. In the second half Mozart briefly enriches the contrapuntal weave with a three-part canon initiated by the violas. The Elysian C major trio is even more intricately fashioned, as a ‘double mirror canon’ for four instruments (the second viola is silent), in which the melodic line traced by the upper part of each pair is turned upside down by the answering lower instrument: ‘the visual image of two swans reflected in still water’, in the memorable words of Mozart scholar Erik Smith.

As in the C minor Piano Concerto, K491, Mozart writes a finale in the form of a square, compact theme and eight variations, many of which treat the theme quite freely. After the martial fourth variation, the fifth, initiated softly by violas (horns in the original version), expands the music’s scale and turns for the first time to a contrasting key, E flat major. Freest of all the variations is the seventh, a mysteriously chromatic meditation on the theme’s essence. Then, as the music seems to atomize, Mozart plunges into C major for a jolly send-off, and a belated reminder of the work’s alfresco serenade origins.

Mozart composed his last two quintets in the winter and early spring of 1790–91, at the end of a creatively lean period when his finances and, so far as we can infer from his correspondence, his spirits were often at a low ebb. When Artaria published K593 and K614 in 1793, their title pages carried the dedication ‘Composto per un Amatore Ongharesa’. The identity of the ‘Hungarian amateur’ who apparently commissioned the quintets remains unknown, though one possible clue is a later statement by Mozart’s widow that the composer had ‘done some work’ for Johann Tost, the second-violinist-turned-entrepreneur of Haydn’s Esterházy orchestra. Perhaps Mozart had been introduced to Tost (a wealthy man following his recent marriage) by Haydn on one of the older composer’s intermittent visits to Vienna. If we can trust the recollections of the elderly Abbé Stadler, as reported by Vincent Novello in 1829, Tost, Haydn and Mozart played K515, 516 and the newly composed K593 together in December 1790, with Haydn and Mozart alternating on first viola.

The two late quintets have always been overshadowed by the more overtly ‘expressive’ C major and G minor quintets, with their greater melodic abundance and richness of texture. Both share with other late Mozart works an almost austere thematic economy. Sonorities tend to be sparer and more astringent, the tone (except in the Adagio of K593) more nonchalant and abstracted. The String Quintet in D major K593, of December 1790, is also characteristic of late Mozart (compare the Piano Sonata K576, and the finales of the three ‘Prussian’ quartets, K575, 589 and 590) in its wiry, faintly abrasive contrapuntal textures. Indeed, in its first and last movements this is one of the most consistently polyphonic of all Mozart’s works. Unique in Mozart, and a probable model for Haydn’s ‘Drum Roll’ Symphony, No 103, is the symbiotic link between the Larghetto introduction and the main Allegro. Not only does the theme of the latter evolve from the former, but the Larghetto makes a surprise return in the coda, just before the movement ends with a blunt repetition of the Allegro’s opening eight bars—the kind of beginning-as-end pun Haydn enjoyed. Haydnesque, too, is the way the second subject turns out to be a variation and elaboration of the rather whimsical opening, now enriched by canonic imitations from second violin and second viola.

The G major Adagio, in full sonata form, is one of Mozart’s most exalted slow movements, a more private, esoteric counterpart to the Andante of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. In the development Mozart takes a sighing descending phrase from the main theme through remote tonal regions, and then ushers in the recapitulation with an unearthly, floating sequence that seems to suspend time and motion.

For all its bright D major sonorities, the minuet moves with an absorbed grace. Befitting the contrapuntal inclinations of the whole quintet, Mozart works the guileless nursery tune, formed from daisy chains of descending thirds, in close canonic imitation, initially between first violin and first viola, and then involving the whole ensemble. The trio sounds like a yodelling Ländler refined (with some elegant dialoguing) for the salon. Based on a quicksilver tarantella tune that slides chromatically down the scale (bowdlerized into a more conventional zigzag pattern in the earliest printed editions), the finale is a contrapuntal tour de force, achieved with that insouciant lightness of touch typical of the composer’s late style. In the recapitulation Mozart enriches the second subject—a tiptoeing fugato that suggests an opera buffa conspiracy—with snatches of the slithering opening theme, creating an intricate web of five-part counterpoint worthy of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony.

Completed on 12 April 1791, the String Quintet in E flat major K614, Mozart’s last major chamber composition, is the most Haydnesque work of his maturity, perhaps a conscious homage to his friend who had left for London a few months earlier. One of the fascinating things about this work is its balance between a frankly popular, even bucolic manner (the first movement is evocative of the chase, with the violas imitating hunting horns at the outset) and a natural Mozartian grace and refinement.

The opening Allegro di molto contrasts a prevailing tone of jocular banter (the horn call is rarely absent for long) with a sinuous second theme, proposed by the first violin and repeated by the cello against veiled chromatic counterpoints in the violas—a wonderful moment of Mozartian expressive ambivalence. For his slow movement Mozart writes a popular-style Romance in gavotte rhythm, of a type familiar elsewhere in Mozart (most famously in Eine kleine Nachtmusik) and Haydn. Like many Haydn movements it fuses rondo and free variation form, with episodes that develop the dainty gavotte theme in increasingly ornate textures.

The jaunty minuet works its ubiquitous descending scale motif in ever-changing instrumental combinations before the violas finally turn it upside down—a slyly witty touch. With a nod to Haydn’s Symphony No 88, the trio presents a lolloping Ländler over a rustic drone bass. In spirit and technique, even the cut of its contredanse tune, the monothematic finale echoes another recent Haydn work, the E flat String Quartet, No 6, from the set published as Op 64. Like Haydn’s finale, it virtuosically combines the popular and (in eighteenth-century parlance) ‘learned’ styles. Brilliant sallies for the first violin and evocations of a gypsy band rub shoulders with bouts of cerebral fugal writing. Then, near the close, Mozart plays the Haydnesque trick of casually turning the melody on its head (shades here of the minuet), before the quintet ends in a volley of sardonic laughter.

Richard Wigmore © 2010

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