Mozart String Quintets at Montreal Music Festival

CanadaCanada Mozart: The Complete String Quintets, Afiara Quartet, Cecilia Quartet, Barry Shiffman (viola), Michael Tree (viola), Montreal Chamber Music Festival, St. George’s Church, Montreal, 29.5.2012 and 31.5.2012 (SSM)

Quintet No. 1 in B-Flat Major, K. 174
Quintet No. 2 in C Minor, K. 406
Quintet No. 6 in E-Flat Major, K. 614

Quintet No. 5 in D Major, K. 593
Quintet No. 4 in G Minor, K. 516
Quintet No. 3 in C Major, K. 515

Afiara Quartet Photo Credit: Rory Earnshaw

The six string quintets by Mozart span his lifetime, from the first, composed when he was seventeen, to the last, written in the year he died. By the age of seventeen, he had already written 170 works, but the First Quintet was his most inspired chamber work to date, competing only with the 3 Divertimenti, K. 136-138, in quality. It is possible that he was moved to write this work after hearing Haydn’s Opus 20 set of quartets. Mozart was a keen observer and apparently could play back from memory anything he heard. One can see Haydn’s influence here in Mozart’s use of rests, syncopation and counterpoint. The false reprise that concludes the piece is a classic Haydn trick: leading us to expect a repeat of the main theme, but instead stopping short of it, as if to say, “Finished! On to the next masterpiece.” The Afiara Quartet, aided by the eminent violist and founding member of the Guarneri Quartet, Michael Tree, gave an earnest if somewhat tepid reading of the work. Michael Tree has always been the most circumspect of players and was so in this piece, but I wonder if his presence may have been intimidating to the group. This was certainly not the case with their recital in New York in January 2012 when the additional member of the group was Denis Brott.


Cecilia Quartet. Photo Courtesy: The Banff Centre

The Second Quintet is usually given short shrift. Desperate for money, Mozart needed a piece to add to what would become known as the Third and Fourth Quintets for a subscription concert. He quickly transcribed his Serenade K. 388, written five years earlier. Charles Rosen does not even mention this work in his chapter on string quintets in The Classical Style; Einstein in his Mozart, His Character, His Work goes as far as to say that Mozart “should never have arranged this work as a quintet for strings.” The Serenade is awash with colors of woodwinds that can’t be replicated by stringed instruments, yet the Cecilia String Quartet succeeded in giving the Second Quintet an appropriately somber reading. Mozart’s minor-key works make up only a small part of his output. It is almost an oxymoron to refer to the original piece as a “dark” serenade, but here there is none of the levity commonly found in Mozart’s serenades and divertimenti. Who but Mozart would write a minuet, the least serious of any movements, in the contrapuntal style of Bach with a canon for the first part and a trio which repeats the opening canon except in retrograde? Min-Jeong Koh always seemed to be in control as leader of the group, and Barry Shiffman as second violist added richness and depth to this enigmatic transcription.

The Quintet No. 6 in E-Flat Major is a Mozartean mixture of gusto and gloom with motifs starting out with promise and then modulating to different and distant keys. Here the Afiara Quintet caught on early, with the cellist Adrian Fung energetically taking an unusually prominent role, particularly in the buzzy first movement. The trio section of the minuet shows Haydn’s prominent influence in the hurdy-gurdy sound. The Afiara Quartet, with Barry Shiffman as the second violist, played without the stiffness shown in the first work on the program and impressively dug in for the contrapuntally complex final movement.

The second concert of this complete Mozart quintet cycle began with the Fifth Quintet in D Major. Starting with a slow introductory exchange of questions asked by the cello, the Fifth quickly moves into a lively Allegro. To give balance to this movement, Mozart unusually brings back the opening theme in its Larghetto tempo only to start up and immediately end with the same opening Allegro theme. The Adagio starts off sweetly in G Major but quickly modulates to D Minor for a few minutes of drama before returning to and finally ending on a peaceful note. A rocking, slightly off-balance minuet with a trio of rising arpeggios leads to a busy contrapuntal finale. The Cecilia Quartet tossed off these difficult and complex perambulations with ease again, helped by the temporary odd man in, Barry Shiffman.

What seems to be everyone’s favorite, and understandably so, the Fourth Quintet in G Minor was the penultimate piece on the program. The heart-rending opening movement with its quick chromatic bitter-sweet turns and yearning cries from the violas affects us like little else in Mozart’s music. Aside from a few pieces of juvenilia, G Minor was used as the key signature for only five works, all special in their expression of pathos: the most well known are the 40th Symphony and its earlier cousin, the 25th, both works special in their bare expressiveness. Atypical in many ways, this quintet has a logic of its own: the usual tempi (fast, slow, minuet and finale) are shifted here. Given the tragic quality of the opening movement, a second slow movement would create an imbalance which does not occur when a quicker paced minuet is used. The slow Adagio third movement leads into an even slower opening fourth movement of longing not heard again until Schubert. The concluding Allegro is another contradictory “sad gigue” in 6/8th time. Expectations at St. George’s were high for this particular work, and there are many great performances over the years with which to compete. Expressive but not really practiced in coming together as one, the Afiara made a valiant effort but couldn’t quite reach the heights this work demands.

The concluding work, Mozart’s No. 3 in C Major, suffered in comparison to the G Minor and should probably have been scheduled in the middle of the program. Beginning with a simple rising run of the cello with the other strings playing single repeated notes, the first theme should really be called a motif, as it consists of only four notes played in response to the cello. Barely has the first movement started when Mozart moves into the minor key on the opening’s second iteration. Another unusually placed second movement minuet with an unusually poignant trio leads into a touching third movement Andante consisting of a most prominent conversation between first violin and first viola. A bouncy, upbeat Rondo concludes this calmest of all the quintets, and this adventurous cycle of concerts as well.

Stan Metzger