Dramatic performances in an ideal setting: Mozart and Dohnányi quintets

Mozart, Dohnányi: Lily Francis (violin), Ida Kavafian (violin/viola), Jessica Lee (violin), Mark Holloway (viola), Nicholas Canellakis (cello), André-Michel Schub (piano), Rose Studio, Lincoln Center, New York, 12.4.2011 (SSM) Mozart : String Quintet in C minor, K. 406

Dohnányi : Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 1

In an earlier review I mentioned that chamber music played in an intimate setting can magically enhance the listener’s experience. With an audience of about a hundred clearly devoted music-goers, the Rose Studio was just right for last night’s excellent performance of two very different quintets.

The first work on the program was Mozart’s String Quintet, K. 406/516b. I have added “516b” to avoid a seeming anachronism. This quintet, a transcription by Mozart of his Serenade for Winds K. 388, was meant to serve as the third member of a set of quintets, the other two being K. 515 and K. 516. The Köchel number 406 was corrected by Alfred Einstein to K. 516b in the third edition of the Mozart catalog since the transcription was done around the same time as K. 515 and K. 516.

The opening motif, played forte by all five, set the tone not only for the Mozart but for the fiery Dohnányi that followed. Neither piece was written with the dilettante in mind. Mozart composed just a handful of works in C minor (including the Mass in C Minor, the Piano Sonata No. 14 and the Fantasia for Piano), and he didn’t choose the key randomly. He transcribed the passionate intensity and rawness of the C-minor Serenade to complement the other two string quintets; all three were completed in the same year as Don Giovanni and share its hot-blooded spirit. The string quintet at the Rose Studio felt the work’s temperament and temperature and played it with appropriate gusto.

The second movement, a poignant Andante in the relative major, brings a moment of peacefulness. But even this quiet interlude has some stretching of its harmonics, just to make sure we are aware that this is not an upbeat work, regardless of its starting and ending in the major key of E flat.

As if there wasn’t enough weight in the work to make it interesting, Mozart takes the classic minuet, the lightest movement in the traditional four-movement form, and, with a nod of the head to Bach, writes the “A” section as a canon. Still not satisfied he takes this same canon in the “B” section Trio and writes it in reverse.

What Mozart has done is to create the musical equivalent of a palindrome.

The final movement is a theme and variations. Actually it is a theme and variations with variations. The first three are typical for Mozart – adding triplets, modifying the theme by syncopation, changing emphasis on different notes – but by the fourth the da capo structure ends and the strict variation on a theme reverts to sonata form for a moment as it undergoes a development. This mixed form occurs quite frequently in Mozart’s closing rondos where a development section is added to the middle, making the movement a cross between rondo and sonata.

As well-played as the Mozart was with Lily Francis as first violinist and Ida Kavafian as first violist, a certain authority was given to the performance of the Dohnányi Piano Quintet with Kavafian as first violinist. From the opening crescendo to the Finale’s last chord, Kavafian exuded confidence and displayed a deep understanding of this work’s inner structure.

It is amazing enough that this work was written by Dohnányi at the age of eighteen, but before publishing it as his Opus 1, he had already written some seventy earlier pieces. This quintet is a late nineteenth-century masterpiece. It is slightly derivative, but the music is so well conceived that even if, in the first movement alone, you hear Brahms in the opening passages and Dvorak as the inspiration for the movement’s second theme, you are still dumbstruck by the beauty of its melodies. At times one feels that the music is almost too big for a quintet: as Brahms’ First Piano Concerto was jokingly referred to as his real first symphony, so this work seems to be stretching the bounds of its form.

The second movement continues at the zealous pace of the opening movement, pausing only briefly for the peaceful Trio section. Yet even here the quietude is broken, flaring for a minute and returning to the first section’s dynamics to continue its fervent passage to a softer ending. An Adagio with a lovely melody played by the viola opens the third movement. It too has moments of fervid intensity before subsiding with a peaceful sigh.

The Finale, a rondo-like movement, starts strikingly with a catchy, jaunting theme that fixes itself in your mind. Filled with big crescendos that are orchestral in their dynamics and a lyrical song first played by the cello then given to the others to comment on, this movement contains a bit of everything. This “everything” includes a perfectly constructed fugue based on the opening melody as well as Dvorakian moments. The movement ends as it began with tremendous bravura.

My kudos to all six members of the group for performing chamber music as it should be performed. The players left the stage after this powerful recital looking tired, but the audience left the building invigorated.

Stan Metzger