Friday, October 5, 2012

The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin Opens the Season with Mozart

photo by Daniel Hanack
If you’re like me and are amazed that October’s already here, then you might be surprised that the opening program with Market Square Concerts’ new season is just days away!

We begin with the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin (left), as it’s officially known, because it was founded by four principal players from the legendary Berlin Philharmonic’s string sections where they are all currently members. They’ve won high praise around the world for their performances but something about violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s comment speaks a great deal: “I’d like to hear music always played as beautifully as you play.”

Between regular appearances at Carnegie Hall or London’s Wigmore Hall, they’ve also been invited to play private concerts for the likes of Pope Benedict XVI and the Spanish Royal Family. Two days after they play here in Harrisburg, they’ll be performing the same program in Carnegie Hall, so… yeah!

Here’s the Quartet playing the opening movement of Beethoven’s 1st “Razumovsky” Quartet (F Major, Op.59/1) recorded last year in Berlin’s Chamber Music Hall:
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Their concert in Harrisburg is Wednesday, October 10th, at 8pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church – I’ll be giving a pre-concert talk starting at 7:15 in the sanctuary.

The program opens with Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K.499 and concludes with Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, his E-flat Quartet Op. 74. In between – quite a contrast – is the String Quartet written by Witold Lutoslawski in 1984. January 2013 marks the Centennial of the birth of Poland’s leading composer from the 2nd half of the 20th Century. (Later, I'll post more about these works.)

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One of the problems with the vast amount of… well, stuff one can find on the Internet today is not only the variety of material and information, but its accuracy and quality. Looking for videos of any particular work means you can find good and bad performances or recordings and it’s difficult, sometimes, to find something that’s representative. So, not having the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin’s performances available, this time I chose different performers for each movement of Mozart’s D Major Quartet, K.499.

Let’s begin with a recording by the Franz Schubert Quartet playing the first movement, marked Allegretto (‘not too fast’), not the typical lively Allegro:
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The Hagen Quartet, recorded in 2004, plays the second movement, a Minuet and Trio:
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Here’s a classic performance by one of the great quartets of the past, recorded in 1934 – the famous Budapest Quartet, playing the 3rd Movement, the slow movement marked Adagio:
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The finale is performed by the Quatour Mosaïques, an ensemble using period instruments with also “period tuning,” in other words tuning what we call A=440 down to what musicians used to tune to back in Mozart’s day. They also don’t use as much vibrato as modern players do, so the whole performance may sound a little different from what you might expect.
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Mozart, 1785
Mozart completed this quartet on August 19, 1786, the year after he had completed a set of six string quartets ‘dedicated to Haydn.’ His next (and last) set of string quartets would be the three written for the King of Prussia between 1789 and 1790.

The “Haydn” Quartets (some of the finest in the entire quartet repertoire) were composed as a specific project, Mozart studying the latest quartets by his older friend and the recognized “father of the string quartet (as well as the symphony)” and hoping to emulate them in the combination of various stylistic and compositional elements and better realizing the potential of four string instruments playing together.

The “Prussian” Quartets were the result of a trip to Berlin after which Mozart hoped writing the king a set of six quartets would prompt King Friedrich Wilhelm II to offer him a job in the royal court. But something must have happened along the way because by 1790, Mozart had completed only three quartets and abandoned that particular project. These works weren’t published until a few weeks after his death in 1791.

This particular quartet is kind of an “odd man out.” Usually, in those days, composers wrote sets of works, not single works – the six “Haydn” Quartets or the various sets by Haydn (usually six at a time, sometimes three), even the six quartets of Beethoven’s Op.18 or the three of his Op.59 – because part of the experience was to explore the different possibilities of the ensemble. There might be a “concertante” quartet which would feature the 1st violin (making it a mini-concerto, in a way, or a sonata accompanied by three other stringed instruments), a “dramatic” quartet (often the only one in a minor key), a more lyric one and a more complex (often described as “symphonic”) one where the instruments might be on a more even balance, perhaps a “pastoral” one to balance the dramatic one.

But the D Major Quartet, K.499, stands alone. Why?

It’s sometimes referred to as the “Hoffmeister” Quartet which sounds confusing (as if 'the Mozart Haydn Quartets' isn’t confusing enough: which composer wrote it?). Franz Anton Hoffmeister, if he’s remembered at all today, was a composer as well but in his day was more famous as a music publisher. In fact, the Leipzig branch of his firm was bought out by C.F. Peters in 1806 which is still one of the leading publishers in the world today.

Mozart, 1788
Mozart was to compose three piano quartets (something new in the music world) for Hoffmeister who’d just founded his publishing company in 1784. In those days, new compositions were often sold “by subscription” before their release date in order to help defray expenses and, unfortunately, there was so little interest in Mozart’s new works, the plan was scrapped by mutual agreement. Only the first two were composed – and yet what works!! Mozart completed the G Minor Piano Quartet (K.478) in October, 1785, and the E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) in June, 1786. Eventually, the older firm Arataria published these two works in 1787 and even though they failed to attract much attention in Vienna, amateurs throughout Germany snatched them up and played them with considerable enthusiasm (“Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such-and-such a princess or countess possesses and plays it!,” the 18th Century answer to word-of-mouth advertising).

It’s suggested that Mozart wrote this string quartet for Hoffmeister by way of apology, giving him something that might fare better and make up for the lost effort with the piano quartets.

Libretto from Prague, 1786
1786 had started off a busy year for Mozart. Most of the first half had been taken up with composing and producing the opera, The Marriage of Figaro (which, incidentally, did also not go over well in Vienna in May, 1786, but became a hit in Prague that December). Before finishing Figaro, Mozart wrote two great piano concertos – the A Major (K.488) and the dramatic C Minor (K.491) – both in March. Figaro, officially K.492 in Köchel’s catalogue, was completed in April and premiered in May. The E-flat Piano Quartet (K.493) was finished in June.

Then, in early August, Mozart wrote his delightful Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (K.498) known as the “Kegelstatt” Trio, which he and friends played after a dinner party.

On the 19th of August, Mozart added the freshly finished D Major String Quartet (K.499) to his own catalogue.

Curiously, he completed no other new works until November. In October, his son Johann Thomas Leopold, was born and died of suffocation less than a month later.

What else was going on in Mozart’s life at the time?

After moving to Vienna in 1781, Mozart had become estranged from his father, Leopold, and his recently married sister Maria Anna (ever known by her childhood nickname, “Nannerl”). This became even worse after Wolfgang married Constanze Weber whom Leopold highly disapproved of and then the birth, in 1785, of Nannerl’s son, named in her father’s honor, Leopold (it had been a bone of contention that Wolfgang had not named his first son after him). As Leopold (Sr.) had created the prodigies of Wolfgang and Nannerl, he set about doing the same with Little Leopold only to be disappointed to discover the boy had no talent, much less genius.

Not long after arriving in Vienna, Mozart still thought of moving elsewhere to find a better paying, more stable employment situation but it wasn’t until an English musician arrived in Vienna to study with him that Mozart began thinking about London – even to go there on an extended tour. Johann Peter Salomon, a German-born impresario in London, would not arrive until later – he was responsible for enticing Haydn to London: Mozart, alas, was tied up with commitments and a sick wife, then, but he was younger and they would try this again sometime (as it turned out, Mozart died while Haydn was in London on his first trip).

Mozart writing to his father, 8 Aug, 1786
Possible arrangements were made through connections with his student, Thomas Attwood, and the singer Nancy Storace (the original Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro), that in 1787 Mozart would go to London and write three operas (for any other musicians, he could write whatever music he wanted, just not operas). But Constanze was sick and Mozart would not travel without her. Later, when he asked his father Leopold if he would look after their two children while they traveled to London, Leopold was outraged, telling Nannerl in a letter that he didn’t wanted to “get stuck” with two children if something happened to them or they decided not to come back: he was already raising (and attempting to train) her son, Little Leopold! So the plans were dropped – later: there was always later.

But later never came for Mozart. He died at 35 in 1791, four years later.

Imagine – again, the “what if” fantasies – if Mozart had gone to London and written three more operas and who knows how many symphonies and concertos and quartets and sonatas for the London audiences, the way Haydn would write his last twelve symphonies plus several other quartets and sonatas while he was there!

And it was a big disappointment for Mozart who had started learning English well enough to try reading English novels and plays – including Shakespeare – looking for potential opera subjects.

Keep in mind, Haydn earned 24,000 florins in his two trips to London, the first in 1791, the second in 1794. Mozart had earned about 3,000 florins in 1786. Another “what-if” – what if Mozart didn’t have to write all those letters begging for money from his friends in the last years of his life?

Anyway, in the midst of all this, Mozart composed this lone string quartet when he was 30 years old, building on the skills he’d learned from writing the six “Haydn” Quartets and feeling the joy and enthusiasm at a very fruitful time in his life – the concertos, the opera, even that dinner party at the Jacquin household with its effervescent “Kegelstatt” Trio, surrounded by friends and, despite Vienna’s apparent loss of interest in the one-time prodigy who’d played for kings and empresses when he was child, a fair bit of hope for the future.

- Dick Strawser

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