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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Quintet for piano and winds in E-flat major, K. 452 (1784) [24:38]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Quintet for piano and winds in E flat major, Op.16 (1796) [26:25]
Ensemble Dialoghi
rec. 2015
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905296 [51:03]

I want to discuss the presentation Harmonia Mundi have lavished upon this intriguing issue before considering the performances and recording of this familiar coupling. Readers will be able to see the mildly disturbing cover image: five faces squished together in a line, the second and fourth in the sequence upside-down, each heavily made-up and conveying a mildly exaggerated theatrical air. There are no masks, but the five core members of the Ensemble Dialoghi are playfully referring to the earthy world of the Commedia dell’ Arte, which by the time Mozart was born had seemingly moved off the street and into the sphere of legitimate theatre. In the second of two lengthy essays presented in the booklet, the ensemble’s clarinettist Lorenzo Coppola presents an entertaining if rather speculative theory that both the Mozart and the Beethoven quintets can be linked to the Commedia, by way of the rise of opera buffa, via the consequent vocal/conversational mimicking in composers’ subsequent instrumental music, the need for composers/concert promoters of the time to find new technical means to attract audiences to instrumental recitals, Mozart’s borrowing of such devices from his operas, and Beethoven’s use of ‘shock’ to get audiences’ attention. Coppola even manages elegantly to shoehorn the group’s adoption of period instruments into his amiable discussion, before concluding with a diverting (and extraordinarily detailed) imagined ‘narrative’ of what the instrumental ‘characters’ might actually be saying to each other at certain junctures in the two quintets.

These absorbing musings are preceded by an equally thorough and readable exegesis by Florence Badol-Bertrand (in a splendid translation) addressing the real or imagined parallels between the late-Mozart work and its early-Beethoven counterpart. She raises the considerable likelihood that the latter composer knew of K. 452, and further suggests that Beethoven alludes both to Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro in his quintet, a thought that links neatly with Coppola’s subsequent hypothesis. The notion that K. 452 was Mozart’s favourite among his own works is revived, but the quote from which this idea came emerged soon after its premiere; in his final six years he would produce countless immortal masterpieces. Both essays are scholarly, readable and central to this project, although I cannot quite claim to be sufficiently expert in either composer’s music to categorically ‘buy’ either proposition, persuasive though they may be to some. Either way they provide food for thought and considerably add to the attraction of this package.

Looking through the catalogue at the remarkable number of versions of this coupling (there are at least thirty), it is actually rather surprising to find so few which involve period instruments. Robert Levin and the AAM Chamber Wind Ensemble on L’Oiseau Lyre, who recorded the coupling in the late 1990s, seem the most notable challenger (455 994-2; it also contains Beethoven’s Horn Sonata Op. 17 with Anthony Halstead). I have not heard it myself, although it was certainly well received at the time. Either way, I can report that once one gets used to the extremely pungent sounds of the five instruments that feature here the performances are fresh, elegant, entertaining and exciting by turn, while the recording is absolutely ideal. Both pieces ooze charm and fun as it is – it is impossible not to smile at the music even during a workaday performance – but here the energy and love these players display makes for an exhilarating listening experience.

This fortepiano has a rather distinctive, resonant sound which seems oddly apt for the rather formal opening Largo in the Mozart. The winds also meld characterfully in this introduction before the Allegro moderato gets into its stride. By now the colours of each instrument emerge gloriously. The conversational character of the music is convincingly projected – it is no coincidence that this group are named Ensemble Dialoghi. Within the context of such ‘civil’ music (and this applies to both works), to my ears at least the rather rustic, primitive sounds of the period wind instruments better distinguish the individual ‘characters’ than performances on conventional instruments. In the Larghetto slow movement the players duly convey the warmth of the interchanges between the winds. The keyboard seems here to provide commentary rather than seeking the spotlight. Pianissimos on this fortepiano do decay rather quickly and such fragility sometimes suggests its sound may be snuffed out by the wind, but it does not happen, which is a tribute to the skilful engineering. My favourite Mozart Piano Concerto (I suspect I am not alone) is the G major, K. 453 – it was his very next work – and I had never really taken in the similarities in the melodic shaping of its Rondo finale to its immediate predecessor before encountering this disc. Cristina Esclapez projects the tact and humanity of the keyboard line with ease and elegance, better enabling the detail in the wind writing to emerge. The coda is exquisitely managed.

While Lorenzo Coppola’s ‘hypothetical narratives’ in the notes seem rather exaggerated to me, elements of them do chime. The horn’s interjections during the introductory Grave of the Beethoven do strike one as ‘grumpy’, like a parent chiding a child with attention deficit disorder (the fortepiano). The keyboard may indeed be a fortepiano and Op. 16 may well be early Beethoven but, even though little more than a decade has elapsed since K. 452, the Ensemble Dialoghi find comparative modernity in this music which again eludes many conventional instrument accounts. Indeed the chords at the close of the first movement evoke a premonition of the opening movement of the 8th Symphony. The Andante cantabile exudes a definitively Beethovenian serenity, while the timbres Esclapez extracts from her instrument at the elaborated restatement of the main theme are almost guitar-like. Pierre-Antoine Tremblay also finds some gorgeous horn colours in the quietness of his solo. If anything, the work’s Mozartean credentials are more to the fore in the work’s Rondo finale, and are here illuminated by the Ensemble Dialoghi in some tactful, civilised and reined-in playing. The interplay between horn, wind trio and fortepiano that brings the work to its conclusion is a delight.

Some may feel 51 minutes is short measure for a full-price disc these days. It is hardly a quibble, more a personal view; but if one assumes that the main HIP competition for this disc is the AAM disc mentioned above, it would have been most opportune had Ensemble Dialoghi matched it by including Beethoven’s Horn Sonata. I suspect it would have been both instructive and enjoyable to hear the two most alluring instruments on display here, the fortepiano of Cristina Esclavez, and Pierre-Antoine Tremblay’s horn in extended tandem. Perhaps it would not have quite tallied with the concept of this nonetheless special disc, an issue which I believe will provide lasting pleasure.

Richard Hanlon



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