Arvo Pärt connects the dots between Classical and Romantic in this exceptional program featuring five Symphony Principals! We open with what many consider one of the finest in the string quintet repertoire, Mozart’s remarkable 515—among the very greatest of his chamber music masterpieces. Then, transporting us to another realm is Pärt’s enigmatic Summa for String Quartet, originally written for a cappella voices. And recognized as the nineteenth-century’s “Second Mozart,” rounding out the afternoon is Mendelssohn’s magically passionate String Quintet No 2.
Quintet for Strings in C Major, K. 515
Summa, for String Quartet
String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, op.87
Quintet for Strings in C Major, K. 515
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Mozart’s C major Viola Quintet is among the very greatest of his chamber music masterpieces. The possibilities of adding one extra voice to a string quartet clearly interested the composer in his late years, perhaps because of the increase in contrapuntal opportunity, perhaps because Mozart himself played the viola; in any case, he wrote four major works for viola quintet during this period, and established the genre for posterity. The C major Quintet was composed in the spring of 1787, along with its counterpart, the darkly tragic G minor Quintet; it shows the composer at the height of his mature period, able to call into being music whose smooth surface masks the depth of invention and complexity lying beneath.
The first movement celebrates instantly the “five-ness” of the quintet with an idea that progresses in five-bar periods, keeping to this pattern for quite a while; this not only creates a wonderful, persistent asymmetry, but augurs the entire work’s commitment to surprising and irregular phrase lengths. This first idea, where the first violin answers a rising question in the cello, is destined to undergo various rhetorical shifts: first it will come to an abrupt halt, with a silence, then the two instruments reverse their roles; then a short while later they will try again, only to interrupt each other one bar too early with the next question. The texture in this movement is generally simple and homophonic, with the one accompanied by the many, particularly in the first appearance of each melodic idea; but just as the ear has become used to this simplicity, the composer splits the group in countless ways: here he has five independent voices imitating one another, there he has pairs of voices offering contrasting activity, or challenging each other antiphonally. And in the central development section of the movement, he abandons simplicity altogether, exploring deeply the polyphonic possibilities of his material in a dark, troubled episode. The extensive coda, too, features complicated counterpoint among the voices, once more inviting a darker tenderness which offsets the sunny, C major qualities of the movement.
The rather blithe Minuet employs a teasing device: a melody which crescendos to a surprising subito piano, then on its second attempt attains the forte it was aiming for. This is the first of several dynamic surprises, which crop up everywhere in the movement, an idée fixe of sorts. The Trio, unusually, shifts to F major—modulating beyond the parallel major or minor key is uncommon for Trios of this period—and, as if aware of having strayed too far, seems often unsure of itself: instead of a flowing melody, the main idea is a hesitating two-note motif, and the key of F major is only firmly established near the very end of the section.
The slow movement takes the form of a tender duet between the first violin and first viola, as Mozart focuses on the orchestrational symmetry of the quintet. Here we have very much the reverse of the teasing, hesitating Minuet: rather, songful continuity is the rule, and as soon as one instrument pauses for breath, the line is taken up by another. All the elements of opera aria are here, beautiful melodic contour richly adorned with ornaments and arabesques; only a text is lacking. The form is simple and without development, befitting the music’s straightforward message.
In the Finale, Mozart’s operatic genius again springs to mind, but now the mood is decidedly buffa. Effervescent and humorous, the five parts are sometimes united festively, sometimes scurrying about conspiratorially, handing messages back and forth. As in the first movement, the idea of a confident momentum brought to a sudden stop is explored. The material that leads to the close of the first section hiccups amusingly; then the section seems to be unable to come to a conclusion. Despite all the humor and surprise, however, the movement’s strict rondo form describes an inevitable arc, so that the euphoric coda, with its glorification of the main theme’s leaping thirds, seems pre-ordained.
—Note by Misha Amory
Summa, for String Quartet
Born September 11, 1935, Estonia
Pärt wrote the first version of this work in 1978, but scored it for four vocalists using the Credo from the mass for its text. Twelve years later, he arranged the piece for string orchestra, giving the work a quite different dimension while retaining its lively, Baroque-like spirit. While much of Pärt’s post-serial output has an early music character—chant-like serenity, medieval rawness in some of his orchestral scoring, and simplicity of design and form—this piece exhibits not only a Baroque sound, but a joyous, almost nonchalant manner not frequently heard in the compositions of Pärt.
—Description by Robert Cummings
Mendelssohn’s second viola quintet dates from last years of his composing career. By this point he had written all of his chamber music save the final string quartet, Op. 80, and a few isolated quartet movements that were since bundled and published in s a composite set as Op. 81. Within two years, Mendelssohn would be dead and this final quintet would remain unpublished due to his feeling that the work was somehow not finished. Mendelssohn wrote his first quintet some twenty years earlier when he was seventeen. And although the precocious Mendelssohn was already a master by the standards of lesser mortals, it is the second quintet that lasts in the repertoire as the mature masterwork, the next historical landmark for the viola quintet after Mozart. (Beethoven wrote a viola quintet in 1801 called “The Storm” but it is not included in the traditional canon).
The quintet begins with a huge Allegro vivace sonata, the longest movement of the four. The musical means are ostensibly simple comprising two contrasting themes, one, an exuberant rising arpeggio with a dotted rhythm, the other, a softer falling line with equal note values. But from these elements, Mendelssohn crafts a drama of great passion, driven by characteristic tremolos, a nearly concertante first violin part and the swelling textures of string symphony. The music is seamless and rhapsodic. Indeed, there is not a single repeat symbol in the entire work: it is continuously through-composed.
The tempo of the second movement Andante scherzando is, by Mendelssohn standards, quite moderate compared to his typical “elfish” scherzi. But still there is that telltale light and tensile agility with agile bowing and pizzicato, as if the players were on tiptoes whispering a magic spell from an invisible world. This effect is enhanced by a bit of fugal imitation among the parts, a repetitive, ritualistic incantation. Furthermore, as he frequently does, Mendelssohn spins out his scherzo without strong seams or vividly contrasting trio. The music forms a continuous web until a final disruptive cadence sends the spirits flying, a final sprinkle of fairy dust in their wake.
The Adagio is unquestionably the center of gravity and the movement most admired by commentators on this quintet. Full of pathos and drama, it begins with the telltale signs of a funeral march, a mournful musical elegy. An insistent drumming permutes into a variety of pulsations underlying much of the music for a sense of both mounting drama and dour inevitability. Never has Mendelssohn sounded so much like Schubert. Occasional anguished cries rival those in Mozart’s g minor quintet. Twice Mendelssohn softens the mood with his signature lyricism in a pastorale vein until a lone violin rising above turgid tremolos sends a final entreaty skyward, a new ray of hope banishing the sorrow for good.
Mendelssohn finishes his last quintet with a rondo-sonata hybrid that takes full advantage of the ensemble’s larger forces, again encroaching on the textures of his string symphonies. The main rondo refrain surges forward trailing shimmering, echoing reverberations, riding swift figurations and bounding in muscular unisons that eventually divide into disciplined fugal imitations reflecting Mendelssohn’s love of Bach. A contrasting lyrical song fragment surfaces occasionally to check the momentum, sweeten the ride and to preface the last triumphant flourish of unshakable resolution.
—Note by Kai Christiansen and Earsense, The Chamber Music Exploratorium