Juilliard Historical Performance Program Opens Fifth Year With…Quintets

Mysliveček, Mozart: Monica Huggett (violin), Caroline Krause (violin), Daniel McCarthy (viola), Kyle Miller (viola), Michael Unterman (cello), Caroline Nicolas (cello), Paul Hall, Juilliard School, Lincoln Center, New York, 24.9.2013 (SSM)

Mysliveček: String Quintet No. 1 in G major, Op. 2
Mozart: String Quintet in C major, K. 515
String Quintet in G minor, K. 516


This concert is the first of the Historical Music Department’s fifth year. Last year’s opening concert featured several faculty members in a varied program of Baroque chamber music; tonight’s concert was less ambitious and technically not Baroque. There are, of course, no rigid boundaries, but traditionally the Baroque period runs from 1600 to 1750. This can be simplistically justified by putting Palestrina’s death in 1594 as the end of the Renaissance, with Bach’s death in 1750 marking the end of the Baroque and the beginning of the Classical period. Early music specialists like Roger Norrington and Nicholas Harnoncourt have moved the boundaries of historical performance way past Mozart to Beethoven, Schubert and even Bruckner. I could be wrong, but this may be the first program of Mozart that the Historical Music Department has presented.

The Mozart works were preceded by a brief string quintet, the first in a set of three, written by the Czech composer and friend of the Mozart family, Josef Mysliveček. The music of the period just before Mozart was odd, transitional, and referred to by the great scholar Robbins-Landon as the “Barococo”:  fluffy compositions which rarely went  beyond the music’s surface. Quantz, Mysliveček, Boccherini and J. C. Bach all produced oodles of chamber music, sinfonia concertantes and, in the case of Quantz, hundreds of flute sonatas and concerti. The quintet performed here is pleasant music that Mozart imitated, and this can be heard in his earliest string quintet, K. 174, where the monophonic simplicity and strict adherence to the classical agenda found in the music of  Mysliveček were the norm. By the time Mozart wrote his last two string quintets, he was thirty years old and light-years beyond Mysliveček, writing quintets that are dense, complex and, particularly in the G minor, highly chromatic and heart-wrenchingly poignant.

Chamber music is the most difficult type to perform successfully. Soloists have only themselves to worry about if they fail during a recital, while members of an orchestra are generally covered by their fellow musicians playing the same musical lines. Chamber music demands not only complete accuracy but also total rapport with one’s associates. There is no one on stage to cover  mistakes: each note has to be exactly played and perfectly in-sync with the other players. Aside from the rare occasions when truly great musicians get together and play, most successful groups have members who fit together in style, temperament and level of skill. More than anything else, chamber music demands that each player knows what the other musician is doing. Chamber groups rarely rise to that level of accomplishment during their early years together and often fall apart if any member of the group decides to leave. Both the Juilliard and Emerson Quartets went through demanding searches for replacements this year, and the Emerson had considered disbanding if the right cellist could not be found.

The first violinist in a quartet is normally given the most prominent role, often playing as   if a soloist in a concerto. Monica Huggett seemed to step down a notch here in both dynamics and tempi so as not to completely unbalance the group’s equilibrium. The two Mozart quintets are demanding works that require not only advanced technical skills but a maturity that comes with experience. Tempi were generally on the slow side, and there were few instances when all the instruments coalesced. All the musicians were clearly talented and up to the complexities of the score, and their hard work does not go unnoticed.

An observation: There has been no final answer on whether Mozart intended the last two quintets to have the traditionally slow second movement replaced by the third movement minuet, and the traditional third movement minuet replaced by an andante. Some musicologists blame the original editor for this reversal when he set up the manuscript for publication. Monica Huggett and her group went both ways: the K. 515 was played fast-slow-minuet (trio)-fast, while K. 516 was played fast-minuet (trio)-slow-fast. The playbill did not make note of this change for K. 515 and had me trying to fit 3/4 time into 4/4 time to justify the error in the program guide.


Stan Metzger