Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio
Movement 3: Adagio ma non troppo
Movement 4: Adagio – Allegro
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.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2010