More ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ with the Chilingirian Quartet and Yuko Inoue

Mozart: Chilingirian Quartet with Yuko Inoue, Kings Place, London, 14.4.2011 (GD)

String Quartet No.6 in B flat, K 159
String Quartet No.16 in E flat, K  428
String Quartet No.8 in F, K 168
String Quintet in G minor, K 516

This was part of a series of concerts at King Place entitled ‘Mozart Unwrapped’. I am not entirely sure of the significance of Mozart being ‘unwrapped’. Of the really ‘great’ composers Mozart is more available today than he ever was. With a record number (for a composer) of books, articles etc, not to mention the growing plethora of recorded Mozart, in both ‘period’, and ‘non period’ style.  At the beginning of this year BBC Radio 3 put on twelve days of wall to wall Mozart , including ‘every note he wrote’, and a few he probably didn’t. However the Mozart concerts, and talks being put on at the Kings Place this year are welcome, including performers as varied as Imogen Cooper and tonight’s performers the Chilingirian Quartet.

As with the other concerts the Chilingirian are giving in this series, tonight’s concert was interestingly programmed, with two late masterworks each preceded by quartets from Mozart’s earlier period. These two earlier quartets are not performed as much as they deserve to be. K 159 comes from a group of six quartets the 18 year old Mozart composed in Milan where his brilliant new opera Lucia Scilla was about to be premiered. At this time Mozart was composing string quartets in the style of J C Bach and Sammartini. And from these composers aspects of the Italian baroque trio sonata are apparent, with three movements, rather than the later four, and ending with a minuet. It was typical of Mozart’s genius that the fiery middle movement Allegro is in the agitated key of G minor, a most  unusual key for this baroque genre, and anticipating  Mozart’s earlier G minor Symphony K 183 ( the so called Little G minor Symphony ) written less than a year later.

The next early quartet (K168) Mozart wrote in Vienna in 1773 and conforms to the classical’ four movement form learnt mainly from Haydn. Again a darker key in F minor is deployed for the Andante, and the work ends with with a daring fugal finale, as does K 173 from the same set of five. Mozart had obviously studied and been impressed by the superb Op. 20 quartets of Haydn, also notable for the use of canon and fugue in their final movements.   Overall the Chilingirian gave quite robust and spirited performances of these early masterpieces.  Occasionally I would have welcomed a degree more finesse, especially in the minor key movements and the fugal writing writing in K 168. But there were some fine touches here, especially in the meticulously timed and subtle use of rubato.

K 428 is the second in the series of quartets Mozart dedicated to his older friend Joseph Haydn, hence the title ‘Haydn Quartets’. Throughout these quartets there are myriad direct references to Haydn, as in this quartet’s minuet movement with its sharp attack and the relative amplitude of its proportions; the tonal ingenuity in the trio where the official key of B flat, is juxtaposed, contrasted with a long, expressive melody in C minor. But these quartets project a new expressive/structural language which is entirely Mozart’s own. This is most evident in K 428‘s use of the key of A flat in the second movement Andante. An extremely rare key in Mozart. As has been noted the sparkling light and shade of this A flat, anticipates the harmonic language of Tristan und Isolde. The Chilingirian delivered a glowing but subtle rendition of this movement. Also they made the important triplets and dotted rhythms in the second subject of the first movement really ‘sound’; and the ‘leaping’ (Haydnesque) chords in the opening of the minuet had an almost Gypsy-like inflection in their rhythmic projection. The mercurial and very Haydnesque wit of the finale, imbricated with more dark minor key inflections,  was played with all the wonderful joy and darker contrast which makes this quartet (and the whole set of six ‘Haydn’ quartets) uniquely compelling.

The concert concluded with one of Mozart’s great, late compositions, the String Quintet in G minor, K 516. It would need  a book-sized essay to describe all the wonders, all the unique compositonal, instrumental innovations encompassed by this work. But even then, as in all truly ‘great’ works, such a detailed essay would fail to articulate the impenetrable and elliptical depth and  beauty of this masterpiece. A review can only briefly allude to some of these unique qualities. It is amazing how Mozart makes the quintet texture much richer in sonority merely by adding another viola. Tonight Yuko Inoue provided this extra sonority while, at the same time, always blending in with the four other players. In the first movement with its agitated, chromatic G minor throbbing opening theme  a subtle element of drama was intoned in  the way the Chillingirian’s accented this agitated accompanying figure, initially in the second violin and first viola – which was totally in keeping with the prevailing mood of anguish and despair. The customary exposition repeat was observed tonight, bringing home the way Mozart goes against all ‘classical’ expectation in suddenly reverting back to the G minor tonic, rather than expanding in the expected G major, for the second subject. The Chilingirian excelled in the harsh syncopated accents of the second movement minuet. The way this opening in the tonic minor melts into the brief lyricism of the G major trio was contrasted with compelling musicality. The dark muted G minor of the Adagio had just the right sombre note, which contrasted well with the movement’s later G major modulations. The Chilingirian’s wisely noted the ‘ma non troppo’ marking for the Adagio, thereby never letting the pace drag.  The sombre G minor tone carries over into the opening Adagio of the finale,giving way to  the following G major rondo, allegro  finale which seems, on the surface, carefree and light-hearted. But a troubled yearning, corresponding to the tonic G minor despair, is never far beneath the music’s surface.

As already mentioned, there were moments in K 516 when I would have welcomed a little more ensemble finesse, as provided by say the recently heard Quatuor Mosaiquest. There was plenty of ‘grain’ in the playing especially in the first violin. This worked well in some movements, as in the sharply accented minuet of K 516, but less well in  more restrained, poetic passages. And throughout the concert, but especially in  K 516, I frequently wanted more ‘voice’, and more projection from the cello, despite generally excellent articulation. But overall this was a fine concert, a  generally impressive understanding of Mozart’s stunning musical diversity. And I have yet to hear what I would call a ‘perfect’ performance of K 516. either in concert, or on record. Perhaps it is in the very nature of works of this level of genius  to defy complete performative perfection?

Geoff Diggines