The term ‘masterwork’
is overused in classical music circles
and I am as guilty as anyone! However
where references to Mozart’s Quintet
for clarinet, 2 violins, viola and cello,
in A major, KV 581 are concerned
the description ‘masterwork’ is extremely
apt. In 1977 for a BBC Radio 4 programme
the famous English tenor Peter Pears
selected this Quintet as his second
favourite classical work of all time.
Pears waxed lyrical about it stating
that there was to be found "a serenity
of the most extraordinary order, heavenly
we call it (‘we’ being a likely reference
to Pears and his lifelong partner Benjamin
Britten), but it’s not a dull heaven,
it’s a wonderful, a reassuring heaven
which one can’t have enough of ... The
world and heaven, where do they join?
They join in music."
Known to be particularly
fond of the clarinet, Mozart wrote his
KV 581 in 1789 for the clarinet virtuoso
Anton Stadler. Stadler also provided
Mozart with inspiration for the famous
Concerto KV 622, the Clarinet Trio KV
498 ’Kegelstatt’ and most likely for
the unfinished Quintet for Clarinet,
Basset-horn and String Trio KV 90 (560b).
Mozart actually composed his clarinet
works for a basset-clarinet that Stadler
had developed. This is a now obsolete
instrument which extended the range
of the clarinet by four half-tones into
the bass region.
The Quintet KV 581
was composed at the time of arguably
Mozart’s greatest artistic productivity.
He had recently completed his opera
Don Giovanni, the D major Piano
Concerto ‘Coronation’ KV 537 and his
mighty Symphonies 39, 40 and 41 ‘Jupiter’.
He was also engaged in composing the
three ‘Prussian’ Quartets and the opera
Cosi Fan Tutte.
The role of the clarinet
in KV 581 does not predominate or offer
empty virtuosity. This is in fact a
poignant and rather melancholy work.
In this case we are treated to cultured
and intelligent playing from the Ensemble
Villa Musica. They capture the spiritual
dimension in the famous second movement
Larghetto with its glorious romantic-song
over muted strings. The third movement
Menuetto with its two trios is
especially sensitively played. Ulf Rodenhauser,
clarinet, gives a stylish and dramatic
performance taking a tender and poetic
line in the Larghetto.
There are competing
versions of KV 581. My premier recommendations
are the interpretation from the Hungarian
based Danubius Quartet with Joszef Balogh
(clarinet) on Naxos 8.550390 and an
award-winning recording in the set of
complete Mozart Quintets from the Talich
Quartet with clarinettist Bohuslav Zahradnik
on Calliope CAL 3231.3.
Mozart composed his
Quintet KV 407 in 1782 around the time
of his marriage to Constance Weber.
Written for horn player Ignaz Leutgeb
this is considerably lesser known compared
to KV 581 but nonetheless remains a
really excellent work; one of the hidden
gems of the chamber repertoire.
The Horn Quintet, KV
407 has a distinctive melodic style
as a result of the mellow timbre of
the instrumentation. Critic Alfred Einstein
has remarked that in the Quintet Mozart
pokes fun at the limitations of the
horn. You hear this especially in the
outer movements, especially, for example,
in the mocking fanfare of the Finale.
For me the musicianship of the Ensemble
Villa Musica is rich and refined and
particularly successful in the deeply
felt Andante. Horn player Radovan
Vlatkovic gives a finely poised performance
which is polished and characterful.
An alternative interpretation
of the Quintet KV 407, worthy of consideration,
is the version from the London-based
Nash Ensemble on Virgin Classics 5 61448
2. This is much admired for its exceptionally
fine playing and recorded sound.
The combination of
the excellent performances and sound
quality make this an extremely enjoyable
and desirable release. Well worth adding
to any collection!