United Kingdom Mozart: Razumovsky Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London 20.1.2015 (GC)
Mozart: Divertimento for String Trio in E flat Major K 563
Piano Quartet in G minor K478
For a long time Mozart’s String Trio K 563 was considered to be a kind of Mozart speciality – for Mozart connoisseurs only. And even now it is not much performed, or even recorded. As tonight’s programme note writer affirms, it is unquestionably the greatest String Trio ever written. The only comparable work in this form being Schoenberg’s Trio Op, 45 completed in 1946.
So what is it about this work that makes it so special? One could start by saying that despite its seemingly endless diversity and length – six movements, coming in at around 50 minutes – it can be appreciated by both the average listener – plenty of wonderful melodies and contrasts – and also the Mozart connoisseur, for its superb use of counterpoint, harmony and part writing which is so unified both in its particularity and in its wonderful sense dialogue, conversation with the other two instruments. The Trio is in the key of E flat major which was a special key for Mozart, his ‘freemason’ key. It follows from this that the work is dedicated to his fellow freemason Puchberg, who helped the composer out of dire financial straits on more than one occasion.
It opens in the tonic with a descending E-flat major arpeggio in octaves for all three players leading to a an exposition full of ‘warmth’ and a splendidly inventive second subject. What a relief that the repeat was observed letting us hear those sublime harmonic contrasts and melifluous melodies again! By the the time we reached the quasi development section, with its various shifts and turns – what subtle contrasts, I felt a sense of wonder at how integrated, how conversational the instrumentalists were! As already noted the playing, the interpretation, was excellent, although here and there I found myself wanting more of a sense of instrumental conversation.
Occasionally Natalia Prischepenko’s violin, although splendid in itself, stood out on its own so to speak. Overall this was a big-toned rendition full of largesse, even grandeur. This is certainly one way to play such a wide ranging and, for its time, long work, but although I greatly enjoyed such an approach, I longed for more of a feeling of intimacy. The A flat major Adagio is full of the most subtle tonal contrasts with some wonderful minor key modulations. Although the nomination divertimento suggests a lighter toned work, from the composer’s Salzburg years, there are darker aspects, as in this movement. But such sombre sonorities are miraculously contrasted with more serene and even playful episodes.
We do not know whether Mozart, a superb violinist and violist, actually took part in this work? But the extraordinary high part for for the viola here would suggest that the composer did take part – such passages he would play with relish. The two minuet movements came off with urgent rhythmic contrast tonight. The first minuet being more ‘symphonic’, almost approaching a Beethoven Scherzo! The second minuet was more minuet-like in the traditional sense. The note of parody, humour was well realised especially the passages imitating the French horn.
The B flat major Andante unfolds as a set of four variations around one theme. Here Mozart uses every kind of tonal/dynamic contrast. from the resolute tonic key of E flat major, to the darker, more brooding tones of B flat minor. Again it is the supreme equality of the writng that leaves one amazed. Every aspect of each instrument’s range, possibility, is fully worked through here, resulting in a rare sense of unity between each part and the totality of the work. The Razumovskys realised every aspect of this music with a sense of complete mastery. The brilliant rondo finale, returning to the home key, is full deceptively simple themes, contrasted with tricky rhythmic constellations – one of these developing into a kind of rhythmic canon. All of this was brought off with complete integrity and empathy.
Despite an occasional lack of conversational interplay mentioned above this wide ranging rendition was worthy to take its place with the likes of the Grumiaux Trio, The trio of Christian Tetzlaff, Tabea Zimmermann and Tanja Tetzlaff, and the classic 1941 recording with Heifetz, Primrose, and Feuermann, sounding its age, but still unsurpassed in terms of instrumental finesse and virtuosity, still exuding a splendid sense of overall unity.
The two piano quartets, completed in 1785, for publisher Hoffmeister were originally part of a contract for three such works. In the event Hoffmeister found the G minor quartet K 478 too difficult for the general public. Like the great String Trio K563 the two completed piano quartets have never been widely performed or recorded. Again they are works for the Mozart connoisseur .Although Mozart never specifically mentioned the quartet the key of G minor marks it out as ‘special’; the key itself is very special for Mozart as in such masterworks as the String Quintet K 516, the great Symphony No 40 K 550, and Pamina’s aria ‘Ah ich fuls’ from Act Two of Die Zauberflöte. Classical music is full of mysteries and inexplicable conundrums. Here the inexplicable mystery is why has particularly the G minor quartet not received a wider audience?
Its violently assertive opening G minor unison chords are as arresting and radical as anything in Beethoven, even the opening of probably the best known ‘classical’work, the Fifth Symphony. Like Beethoven’s famous creation, K 478 ‘grabs fate by the throat’. In fact he never stops letting one hear, even when in the background, its menacing echo, and its disappearance is only temporary. The second theme enters relatively late; it is exposed by the piano, striking in its strange and free periodic structure, independent of the bar line. All this the Rasumovskys delivered with powerful conviction. My one quibble here is that all important piano theme with Benjamin Frith sounded a tad prosaic compared to a pianist like Paul Badura-Skoda – this may be partly due to the extra clarity of Badura-Skoda’s 1790 pianoforte from Vienna. But once the C minor development section began with its increasing harmonic and contrapuntal tensions everything was back on track in terms of unity and instrumental dialogue. The crowning glory of this extraordinarily extended movement is the twenty bar coda, with its final development on the all powerful initial G minor motive, with implacable dotted hammerings of the concluding unison in fortissimo.
The relatively short and contrasting B flat Andante could only have been composed by Mozart. Its sonata form, without development, consists of a tenderly gentle theme whose serenity is shadowed by something other, something unsettling; something defying mere words. The subtlety, even elusiveness, here works to make the mood/tone of ambiguity all the more resonant. The great concluding rondo in G major, brimming with vitality, vigour and wealth of melody, reminded me of the earlier piano concerto in the same key, K 453. Even the turn into e minor in the middle section, where the music becomes more gloomy, tense and dramatic cannot deflect from the sense of expectation fully realised in the coda featuring a last and breath-taking foray into E flat major, again, as with the great String Trio K 563, Mozart’s freemason key of balance and resolution.
As with the String Trio, and despite my quibbles, the Razumovskys’ rendition was as compelling and empathetically committed as anything I have heard, either in concert, or on record.