Three wonderful concerts on the day for Mozart and Brahms string quintets

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello) and James Dunham (viola)
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Quintessence Mini Festival – 17 September
Concert 2:
Mozart: String Quintet No 5 in D, K 593
Brahms: String Quintet No 1 in F, Op 88

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 September, 3 pm 

A series of concerts, like this on Saturday, probably hasn’t been heard in Wellington since 1988 when the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts (as it was originally called) presented members of the Australia Ensemble (six of them), playing all six (not just the four we hear this weekend) of Mozart’s string quintets, plus Brahms’s two string sextets and his string quintet Op 111. It was sponsored by the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, at three concerts on separate evenings in the (then) State Opera House.

That marvellous occasion, in the second of the “REAL” international festivals that began in Wellington in 1986, remains vividly in memory. Just to refresh any skeptics: that was the year Nureyev featured at the Gala opening, when Rostropovich played with the NZSO, at one of three concerts conducted by both Rostropovich and Maxim Shostakovich; with concerts by Franz Bruggen’s Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century; Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain; the young Kronos Quartet. And there were daily concerts both at lunchtime and in the early evening by the best New Zealand musicians.

That festival, and the two, even better, run by Chris Doig in 1990 and 1992, which included Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Salome, and plenty of other great classical music, established a brilliant standard that matched the best overseas festivals. That high standard was maintained till about the end of the 1990s; since then the so-called festivals have been dominated by eviscerated, ephemeral spectacle and bizarre, popular-but-forgettable performances.

I was able to get to only the 3pm concert, the second one, with the penultimate Mozart quintet, in D, K 593, plus Brahms’s Op 88. (Missing from this series were Nos 1 and 2, K 174 of 1773 and K 405 of 1787).

It was perhaps too much to expect a very big audience, but the numbers were no disgrace.

Mozart’s D major quintet
Writers about the piece, including Frances Moore in the programme, fasten on the idea of a conversation between the cello and other instruments, a good way to describe much of what goes on in concerted music, and especially reflects the character of the Mozart in D major.

The opening Larghetto, led by Rolf Gjelsten’s cello, did lend a calmly meditative spirit that became rather more sprightly, even witty, later in the first movement, and while its mood is less weighty than the last quintet, K 614, it becomes musically complex and absorbing. The prevailing spirit of this quintet is gentle and beguiling and though the cello does indeed announce a philosophical, profoundly contemplative tone that might be expected to be maintained, it pursues a different path; its contrapuntal character is so subtle that it can virtually escape notice. The first movement is interesting in the way the Larghetto returns at the end.

In a quintet there is an inevitable tendency to listen for ways in which the extra viola (in some cases a cello) enriches the texture. One seeks for hints of favouritism for the first viola, here played by guest violist, James Dunham, but I wondered whether other ears might claim to, or really did, discern any superiority by one over the other, but although the two often had quite different melodic or harmonic roles, they were just as often affording each other support and comfort; their contributions were complementary even though Gillian Ansell’s instrument often seemed to be the dominant party.

The feeling of intimacy was most evident in the Adagio which, through its sheer beauty, came close to reflecting on life’s pains and disappointments. The players seemed sometimes to prolong the ‘rests’ between phrases reminding us that we cannot escape from the nature of humanity.

I often find myself reflecting on what was happening in the world as music was being written. Here, we could contemplate Mozart having learned of the French Revolution a few months before and the death in February 1790 of Emperor Joseph II who had been supportive of the arts: things that were bringing about profound economic and social changes, not just in France, but also in Austria and throughout Europe; as well as to Mozart’s well-being.

The Menuetto, with its joyous spirit, banishes any temptation to contemplate the wider world; the Trio offers each instrument opportunities for solos, typically, repeated, rising arpeggios. The same almost carefree spirit reigns in early pages of the Finale with the descending, chromatic flavoured scales that are like a mirror image of the rising arpeggios in the Minuet. But its real interest lies in the sophisticated counterpoint that arises after a couple of minutes, in what might be called the development part of the movement leading to a fugal passage where the chromatic scales rise and fall for a while, creating a delightful, relatively complex succession of references to earlier material.

The quintet created a wonderful sense of delight throughout, and the concluding phase continued to be elusive as fresh witty interventions by each of the instruments, individually and leap-frogging each other.

It seemed as if Mozart, and the five players understood it utterly, had held back proof of his genius till the very last page of this deceptively cheerful and straightforward quintet.

Brahms’s string quintet in F major
Brahms’s string quintets follow the same model as Mozart’s – doubling the viola rather than the cello as did Boccherini’s and Schubert’s only one (scholars note that Brahms didn’t come to the string quintet till some years after successful string quartets and sextets).

Op 88 was written at Brahms’s beloved summer retreat at Bad Ischl (near Salzburg) in 1882, almost a century after Mozart’s last year. Rolf Gjelsten spoke before the performance, mainly about the unusual second movement which combines the character of a slow movement and a scherzo, but he also managed to make amusing (I think, as I couldn’t hear it all) remarks about erotic qualities to be found in the sarabande which he’d written nearly 30 years earlier – Brahms’s enigmatic private life stimulates a lot of such speculation and anecdote.

The two violists changed places here, with Gillian Ansell at the right end of the group and James Dunham behind her, to the left.

The first viola really emerges only in the swaying, second theme almost waltz-like – perhaps ‘ländler’ would be more accurate, and I soon realise that Brahms is not intending listeners to be striving to pick up individual players and to spot possible details of iffy balance or soloistic flights, generally the obsession of people in the trade I pursue, a tendency that I usually try to avoid. The ensemble achieved admirable clarity and a lively feeling for rhythms and dynamic undulations.

The interesting second movement did repay attention through its several phases, with violins and occasionally the cello becoming more prominent, as the sarabande gives way to a gavotte rhythm and then reverts after a distinct pause. The two violas are supplied with phrases where they play in sort of duet, but these are unimportant details in music where Brahms had other ambitions and expectations from his listeners. Experts note the way the music moves from the starting key of C sharp minor to close in A major. It does create a meandering shape which doesn’t make it easy to follow, apart from simply allowing it to penetrate subliminally. More clarity arrives with the third movement which proceeds in a normal fashion and brings the quintet to a conventional close.

Brahms esteemed this quintet very highly, perhaps on account of the unusual structure of the second movement, but just as likely on account of the relationships between the parts of the first movement and the interplay of the instruments, that hardly follows conventional patterns in any of the three movements.

I regretted being unable to get to either of the other concerts to hear the other two Mozart quintets and the second Brahms quintet.

Perhaps we must await the arrival of a knowledgeable festival director with mature artistic tastes to revive Wellington’s wonderful festivals of the Chris Doig years to include music like this again.