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CD Feature/ Quartetto Stradivari & Karine Lethiec: "Mozart - The String Quintets"

img  Tobias

Mozart’s String Quintets are a peculiar affair. Foremost, because the composer wrote the first of the bunch in 1773, then didn’t return to the format for almost fifteen years, before churning out five in a row over the next twelve months. There have been many speculations and theories to explain thus huge gap and the ensuing splurge of creative energy, the general consensus being that Mozart wanted to prove to Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II that his approach to the genre was in no way inferior to that of Luigi Boccherini – the uncrowned king of the String Quintet and, coincidentally, a court composer to Friedrich and thus the recipient of the very stately salary Mozart was keen on as well. It will be hard to determin the exact background to the story, just as much as it will not be easy to define what exactly he saw in the format to begin with.

After all, it has been said before that Mozart’s String Quintets really sound almost exactly like his Quartets. So why didn’t he stick to the formula, which had been succesful for him a full 23 times in his lifetime? It is certainly true that these works defy all laws of gravity and display an unusual (or rather unexpected) sense of lightness in tone and instrumentation. The inclusion of an extra viola basically positions the ensemble in between a chamber musical group and the string section of a mature orchestra, it allows for entirely new compositional means and a textural density inattainable to smaller line-ups. Quite naturally, there are never any continuity -breaks in the arrangements, the sound is full and rich and the dynamic range slightly distorted towards more volume and intensity. The brokenness and fragility of the Quartet form has made way for a self-confidence and ebullient spirit which makes the joyous moments seem more bright and the tragic passages more dramatic. On the other hand, the bigger scale and grandiosity carry the risc of turning into inertia and complacency. Mozart counters this danger with compositional wit and grand gestures. If you look carefully, it is easy to see that there is in fact a huge difference between his Quartets and Quintets, the latter not only growing in instrumentation, but also in scope. The third and fourth Quintet are marked by massive opening movements between ten minutes and almost a quarter of an hour’s length, in which they explore a plethora of emotional states and thematic variations. Generally speaking, the main motives are exuberantly long and contain ample material to develop, but Mozart still keeps adding sidenotes, taking his time and creating an impression of melodic wealth. His use of the full ensemble is subtle and will sometimes be restricted to allowing a rhythmic motive to pass through the voices, creating powerfully nervous effects. Despite its relaxed and upbeat nature, the music therefore always maintains an inner tension, which keeps pushing the envelope.

The intermediate position between ensemble and orchestra can, however, never be fully eradicted and demands a decision from the performers: Do they want to go for a fullness in tone or a vivid liveliness? The Quartetto Stradivari and Karine Lethiec turn towards the latter. Their Quintets are lean and effortless, their flow easy and fluent, their interpretation untroubled but with enough raw edges and emotional outbursts to keep the suspense. As a consequence the brusque cello erruptions and the more drastic scenes coem across as compressed and smooth and slightly lack impact. That, however, is probably inavoidable and at least to a certain degree a question of taste. In any case, the benefits of this treatment not only consist in the fact that these three discs can be enjoyed in one go. They also imply that Mozart’s String Quintets may have a strange history – but sound anything but peculiar on your stereo.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Quartetto Stradivari
Homepage: Dynamic Records

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