Hyperion Records

String Quintet in B flat major, K174
composer
1773

Recordings
'Mozart: String Quintets' (CDA67861/3)
Mozart: String Quintets
Details
Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Menuetto ma allegretto – Trio
Movement 4: Allegro

String Quintet in B flat major, K174
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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.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2010

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