The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Mozart’s Viola Quintets are superb masterpieces that deserve more performances and recordings

April 8, 2011
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I kicked off what promises to be a wonderful week of classical music in Madison with a free concert by a group of veteran performers playing certified masterpieces by gold standard composers.

I am referring to Wednesday night’s concert by the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet, which turns 100 years old next season and remains the oldest surviving quartet in world history. To boot, the concert featured guest violist Samuel Rhodes (below, second from right), a founder and member of the famed Juilliard String Quartet who still teaches at Juilliard.

The composers were those two titans of the 18th century, Haydn and Mozart. I like programs that compare similar by different composers – Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, Chopin and Schumann, Debussy and Ravel. Creating such a context sheds light on both.

And this particular program went even farther, offering all “late” works by both composers. In short, we got to hear heard the maturest of the mature.

The program started with a reading that was nothing short of perfect of Hadyn’s String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2 (the “Quinten” of Fifths). It is among the two or three best known of Haydn’s almost 70 quartets. It is a fabulous work that is terse in its motifs, and in, in its third movement especially (below bottom),  its odd harmonies and rough, spiky dance rhythms even anticipates the modern composer Bartok and his use of ethnic music from Hungary and Romania.

The Pro Arte (below top) proved to be absolute masters of rhythm, pitch, articulation and counterpoint and well as balance and dynamics. I can’t even imagine a more satisfying interpretation.

Then came two of Mozart’s six Viola Quintets: No. 5 in D Major, K. 593, and No. 6 in E-Flat major, K. 614.

For The Ear, they were the highlight of the evening, especially the longer Quintet No. 5 in D Major from 1793 that constituted the second half.

All members, including Rhodes played beautifully, with rich tone and the right match of elegance and muscularity that I like in Mozart.

How amazing and moving it was to hear in the D Major Quintet the cello announce its four-note motif at the beginning, only to be answer by the others.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTEY1i58pqs

Or to hear first violin sing out a line like an opera aria in the exquisite, the sublime slow Andante movement. How amazing it was to hear the clean canonical counterpoint that Mozart uses in the last movement, the older Mozart who took a strong interest in Bach to the point of even orchestrating fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

Coming out of this five-star concert that deserved the standing ovation it received from a good mid-week house, I had only one question: Why aren’t the Viola Quintets more recorded and performed?

They are the genuine article, real masterpieces.

Mozart loved the viola. In fact, when he played string quartets with Haydn, he chose the viola part. And he did the same when he played his own Duos for Violin and Viola.

You can easily hear why. The viola sits astride the upper range of the violin and the soulful resonance of the cello. Fine viola playing is often the lynchpin of great quartet playing.

Anyway, if you don’t know these works you should. I put the six Viola Quintets on par with the six famous “Haydn” quartets he wrote for his mentor and friend.

I have two complete recordings, one by the Fine Arts Quartet, the quartet in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, on the Lyrinx label; and the Grumiaux Trio, with guest artists, on the Philips label. The Amadeus Quartet has out a version on Deutsche Grammophon I don’t know but would like to hear about.

I recommend them both.

I imagine other labels have recorded some of the quintets, including Naxos. But more sets should be available. Why the Takacs, the Tokyo, the Emerson, the St. Lawrence, the Orion, the Brentano and the Pacfica String Quartets haven’t recorded them is beyond me.

Finally, we should hear them more performed live, too.

Well, enough from me.

Do you know the Mozart’s Viola Quintets?

Do you have a favorite one of the six – the No. 2 in C Major, K. 515, and No. 3 in G minor, K. 516, being the most frequently performed and recorded?

Do you have a favorite recording of them, any or all?

The Ear wants to hear.

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