United States Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart: Musicians from Marlboro: Mary Lynch (oboe), Wei-Ping Chou and Patrick Pridemore (horns), David McCarroll and Itamar Zorman (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), Peter Wiley (cello), Tony Flynt (double bass), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 7.5.2015 (BJ)
Beethoven: Sextet in E-flat major, Op. 81b
Brahms: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1
Mozart: Divertimento in C major, K. 251
In a program that rounded out the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s superb season of more than 60 concerts, a relatively lightweight piece of early Beethoven served as an amuse-bouche preceding substantial masterpieces by Brahms and Mozart.
Despite the misleading opus number that resulted from its long-delayed publication, Beethoven’s Sextet was written around 1795, only three years after he had moved to Vienna. An attractive and high-spirited piece, it features horn parts that demand considerable virtuosity from the players, and these were dispatched with panache by Wei-Ping Chou and Patrick Pridemore, sympathetically supported by the four strings that complete the instrumentation.
These latter proceeded to give a strongly committed and expressive performance of the first string quartet that the inveterately self-critical Brahms permitted to be played and published, after destroying what are believed to have been some twenty previous essays in the genre. The third movement, not a scherzo but a fine example of the intermezzo style that the composer favored, highlighted some especially graceful viola playing by French-born Hélène Clément.
It may seem surprising to apply the term “substantial masterpiece” to the Mozart work that concluded the program, since it is one of the more than 30 divertimentos and serenades dotted around his output. But K. 251 is one of the finest of such pieces, written ostensibly as pure entertainments. The movements (with a French-style March appended) include an immensely energetic opening Allegro molto and closing rondo and two minuets (the second unusually in theme and variations form), but the gem of the work is the third movement.
For much of this exquisite Andantino the oboe is restricted to embellishing the strings’ theme with airy descant figures. But when it is finally permitted its own statement of the theme, a simple raising of the pitch by a tone in the third measure results in a melodic variant of bewitching eloquence. If you are interested in finding a parallel for this coup elsewhere in Mozart, the closest one I can think of is what happens to the second subject in the first movement of his Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448 (interestingly enough, in the same D-major key as this divertimento), where the fulcrum that creates the drastic opening-up of expression is again a raising of the pitch by just a major second.
For this work, horn-players Pridemore and Chou, and the talented quartet of violinists Itamar Zorman and David McCarroll, Ms. Clément on viola, and cellist Peter Wiley, were joined by an accomplished oboist in the person of Mary Lynch, and the “official” scoring for oboe, horns, and string quartet was supplemented in stylistically legitimate fashion by the addition of Tony Flynt’s capably handled double bass. The performance through all six movements was notable for its irresistible rhythmic zest. The musicians’ decision to play all the many grace-notes in the score extremely short may have been felt to be slightly too much of a good zestful thing, resulting in a somewhat peremptory tone at times—but in music of this lighthearted character, too much energy is preferable to too little, and the softer, more gently expressive passages in the work were never shortchanged.