By Ted AYALA
It’s hard for the casual listener listening to the Larghetto from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet – with the tender, melancholy voice of the clarinet floating softly above a tapestry of gentle, muted strings – to not be carried away by the music’s hushed beauty. This becomes especially difficult when one hears it in the elegant surroundings of Pasadena’s Huntington Library, as with last Saturday and Sunday during Southwest Chamber Music’s (SWCM) ongoing summer survey of Mozart’s Quintets.
Yet, as SWCM’s music director Jeff von der Schmidt reminded the audience in his insightful program notes, the Clarinet Quintet and all but the first of the String Quintets (of which the fourth was included in the program under review) were composed between the American Revolution of 1776 and the 1791 French Revolution, one of the most tumultuous periods in Western history. But if the revolutionary winds that swept Europe failed to leave a direct mark on Mozart’s music, it did leave a more subtle and lasting imprint: the notion that music is an independent art in and of itself.
Before Mozart, music was viewed as a merely utilitarian craft; largely composed to order through commissions from wealthy patrons. Mozart changed all that by significantly altering the role of composer from one of subservience to one of an independent mind following the dictates of their own heart.
Works like the String Quintet No. 4 in G minor, K. 516 would hardly be the kind of music that would have been fashionable at the time in the salons and soirees of the aristocracy. It’s anguished harmonies and nervous pulsations point forward to Beethoven, Schubert and even Mahler. Through the brilliant playing of SWCM musicians Lorenz Gamma (1st violin), Limor Toren-Immermann (2nd violin), Jan Karlin (1st viola), Kira Blumberg (2nd viola), and Peter Jacobsen (cello), Mozart’s as the quiet revolutionary of personal expression came to the fore. In a day and age when personal expression in music is not only expected but taken for granted, Mozart’s instrumental music, which often seems to speak in the first person singular, was the spark that helped to ignite the romantic expressiveness of Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler, among many others. In light of this, it’s no surprise that Tchaikovsky, the master of subjective musical expression, venerated Mozart above all other composers.
Going back to the Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, one is struck immediately by not just the beauty of its melodies, but also by its haunting introspection and intimacy. Played with finely spun phrasing and warmth by clarinetist Jim Foschia, the Quintet astonished through its private tone, its sotto voce musings.
Mozart’s introspective revolution continues to echo even today, when it was clearly heard in the works of two very individual works by composers from China and Vietnam.
The Gobi Canticle for Violin and Cello, played by Lorenz Gamma and Peter Jacobsen respectively, was a fusion of Chinese folk idioms and Bartókian style by composer Lei Liang (born 1972; China). Wending its way along a path of drone basses, snap pizzicatos, and sprightly folk dances, there was something curiously unsatisfying about Gobi Canticle. There was an air of self- conscious display in this music that lent an air of rigidity to the music.
Not so Vu Nhat Tan’s (born 1970; Vietnam) Trang (Moon) for Solo Cello. Like composers Mussorsgky, Revueltas, and Takemitsu, Tan takes the raw elements of the folk music of his native country and refashions them in his own voice. Cellist Peter Jacobsen was the cello soloist and he managed Tan’s tricky writing with enviable ease.
SWCM exploration of Mozart’s Quintets continue this weekend at the Huntington Library where a work by American composer Charles Wuorinen will be sandwiched between Mozart’s String Quintets Nos. 3 and 5. More information on this and other forthcoming SWCM concerts can be had by visiting SWCM’s website at www.swmusic.org.