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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quintet No. 1 in B flat major, K174 (1773) [25:26]
String Quintet No. 2 in C minor, K406 (1787) [22:01]
String Quintet No. 3 in C major, K515 (1787) [34:42]
String Quintet No. 4 in G minor, K516 (1787) [34:21]
String Quintet No. 5 in D major, K593 (1790) [25:16]
String Quintet No. 6 in E flat major, K614 (1791) [23:25]
Klenke Quartet
Harald Schoneweg (viola)
rec 2016/17, Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden, Germany
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC80467 [3CDs: 165:11]

The Klenke Quartett are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year; despite reading very positive reviews of their recordings in the past (late Mozart on Profil, Schubert on Genuin, Tchaikovsky and Haydn on Berlin Classics inter alia), to my shame this is my first encounter with their art, and it has been a most enjoyable, illuminating experience. Of course the repertoire helps; although Mozart’s early B flat major quintet K 174 sometimes gets sidelined (along with K 406, itself a transcription of the Wind Serenade K 388) I still find it a miracle that it was made by a teenager (even if it’s this particular teenager), although it may not pull up trees with the same spirit of adventure and experiment that characterises Mendelssohn’s Octet, for example. I still regard K 174 as an integral part of this marvellous, life-enhancing cycle. Given the pragmatic challenges involved in finding a spare violist it is perhaps surprising how many complete sets of the quintets there are; I suppose the most renowned include those by the Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz for DG (civilised yet rather old school, the DG recording nowadays seems a little plain), the Grumiaux Trio with Arpad Gérecz and Max Lesueu for Philips (more insightful but still somewhat straight-laced, albeit couched in a more present Philips analogue sound) and perhaps the Juilliard Quartet’s late 1970s set with John Graham for CBS/Sony.

There are single discs by the likes of the Lindsays (their account of K 516 in particular is a benchmark) and even individual HIP accounts (a couple by the Salomons on Hyperion for example) which touch me, but the complete cycle which I have found by some distance the most consistently insightful and satisfying (in optimum sound to boot) is the rather under-rated set by the Nash Ensemble, also on Hyperion (CDA 67861/3). Much has been made of Mozart’s use of the extra viola – it was the composer’s own preferred instrument when playing chamber music – and the ‘second’ violist on the Nash discs is the excellent Philip Dukes whose responsiveness and generosity of spirit in those readings beautifully complements the playing of regular violist Lawrence Power. Their violas are never allowed to dominate the music, but the crepuscularity of their sound adds a truly distinctive and appropriate feature to these readings and in my view contributes greatly to their success.

The Klenke Quartett draw on the experienced violist Harald Schoneweg, a long-time collaborator and formerly the violist in the Cherubini Quartet. On first acquaintance their sound may seem a little pared-down compared with the groups identified above, but the space afforded to them by the Accentus engineers couches it within a delicious glow which takes a little time to register. The booklet includes a detailed, very personal discussion with the members of the group in which they attempt to clarify and justify their approach to these pieces. They refer in turn to the refinement and concentration of expression in relation to the quartets, and muse on their expressive, quasi-operatic potential. At the same time, they acknowledge that the additional viola inevitably adds a darkness to the quintets’ sound-world while recognising that Mozart’s genius in these works emerges in his achieving an almost perfect balance between turmoil and despair on the one hand and playfulness and joie d’esprit on the other. I have to say that these contrasts emerge spectacularly in these performances; the extremes are present within the two big masterpieces that are K515 and K516, and in the differences between Mozart’s more succinct designs for K 593 and K614. Throughout, the Klenke’s tonal blend is immaculate, and their engagement with Mozart’s compelling dialogue total. By judiciously applying elements of HIP practice throughout these works they seemingly achieve what amounts to an authentic ‘best of both worlds’ rather than some generic, bland compromise which is neither one thing nor the other. If the Nash Ensemble’s accounts perhaps emphasise the civility and uncover a benign spirit running throughout these pieces, the Klenkes are arguably more tuned into their emotional ambiguity. What ultimately emerges is music of utter grace but tinged with a profundity which has perhaps only fitfully been hinted at in the past.

As can be seen from the dates of these compositions, Mozart engaged with the String Quintet form at three different points in his all-too-brief life. K 174 emerged after his first encounters with Haydn’s Op 20 ‘Sun’ Quartets, and regardless of its content can be seen as quietly revolutionary in formal terms (of course Haydn never took up the challenge of quintet writing). The Klenke’s adoption of elements of period style (vibrato is chastely applied) enables them to draw out the lovely antiphonal interplay in the opening Allegro moderato as well as the witty Haydnisms of the Menuetto and the Allegro finale. The Adagio is wonderfully pure and tender. But their conception of this last movement goes way beyond the projection of some easy teenage charm – there is indubitably an attempt to dig that little deeper and convey what Charles Rosen described the ‘new grandeur’ of this intricately contrapuntal music.

The C minor quintet, known as No 2, is a pretty straightforward arrangement of the oddly bleak Serenade for Winds, K 388. While that is the fact of the matter, I got to know this music in its quintet form long before I heard (or was especially aware of) its source; it is thus unsurprising that I find it fits the five strings like a glove, especially in this performance. The very opening sounds terse and raw, while the Klenke Quartett see the swifter music that follows as edgy rather than consoling. The punctuating silences are telling. Their period practice approach to the spare, yet soft-hearted Andante conveys both elegance and fragility. In the Menuetto in Canone the stark dissonances that peep through the textures seem unusually modern in this reading, almost at odds with the sound of the instruments producing them. The variations in the Allegro finale are by turn grandiose, unsettling, graceful and quixotic. The K 406 arrangement was produced in 1787 soon after the completion of the two big quintets in C major (K 515) and G minor (K 516) which are arguably Mozart’s masterpieces in the form, presumably to complete a set of three. On paper it makes a strange bedfellow, but the Klenke Quartett’s unusually probing account makes a stronger case for its inclusion in this group than is the norm.

It is perhaps revealing that Charles Rosen fails to mention K406 in his masterly analysis of Mozart’s quintets in ‘The Classical Style’. But he leaves one in little doubt as to his view of the stature of its two companions in this middle group. He offers some startling statistics regarding the dimensions of the first movement of the C major quintet; he identifies it as “…the largest sonata allegro before Beethoven, longer than any other Mozart ever wrote, or any that Haydn had written or was to write…..the exposition….is, astonishingly, longer than any first movement exposition of Beethoven….except that of the Ninth symphony, which it equals…” I quote this passage simply because the grand ambition and elevated scale of this movement in particular (and the quartet as a whole) is splendidly projected by the Klenke Quartett, while its spaciousness is vividly captured by the Accentus engineers. Nor do these players hold back; they take the opening at a fair lick that never seems rushed, while subsequent episodes in the Allegro are imaginatively contrasted in terms of pace, texture and dynamics. This is a rounded, lived-in reading, simultaneously intimate and symphonic. Its thirteen minutes plus fly by – I defy any listener not to smile. In the context of the whole work, the Menuetto Allegretto is enigmatic and seems a little out of place, while the measured interplay between violin and viola in the Andante at times borders on a quiet ecstasy. The busy Allegro finale is delightfully unfussy here. In the note Klenke cellist Ruth Kaltenhäuser notes an affinity between the spirit of these quintets and Mozart’s operas. She links the life-affirming countenance of K 515 to The Marriage of Figaro, an idea made manifest in the shaping and layering of this performance.

The G minor Quintet K 516 is the dark heart of the cycle. The Klenkes give us something nagging or troubling rather than despairing, communicating a sense of anxiety bubbling away beneath the restless surfaces of the Allegro. Mozart’s rather acerbic writing is intelligently characterised by these five players; their ‘voices’ most clearly emerge as distinct individual ‘personalities’ particularly in this panel among the twenty-four separate movements that comprise this set. The chordal interjections at the outset of the Menuetto Allegretto are appropriately gruff and bellicose, while its mournful Trio presents an unsettling contrast. The Klenkes convey both plangency and confusion in the slow movement, the use of mutes producing a sound which at times approaches inaudility; Mozart’s silences are judiciously exaggerated to amplify the sense of dislocation, even alienation. This is a modern, quasi-psychological approach to this familiar music; I really like it, although I suspect it won’t convince every listener. The Adagio opening to the finale thus emerges as particularly pained before the surface frivolity of its conclusion – although the Klenkes perhaps underemphasise the darknesses that undeniably linger in the music, and which are arguably in this case more convincingly realised in the Nash Ensemble’s more reined-in account.

The final two quintets both emerged in the last twelve months of Mozart’s life. They are more concise and their formal compression is matched by seemingly more lightweight expressive content. If these works make fewer emotional demands on the listener, they do allow us to let our hair down and appreciate the essence of Mozart’s mature genius. There is a delicious lightness of touch at play in the Klenkes’ approach to both of these works. But the diffuse, fragmented Larghetto opening to K 593 is executed with great care and attention to its minutest details, illuminating an episode which provides a telling counterweight to the almost disposable nonchalance of the succeeding Allegretto section. This provides opportunities throughout for individual virtuosity which are seized gleefully by the quartet’s violinists Annegret Klenke and Beate Hartmann. The serene, airborne development section of the Adagio is exquisitely rendered. a real highlight of this performance. The Menuetto Allegretto is a model of refined grace and deceptive simplicity, a description which could equally be applied to the miraculous Allegro finale, which bounces along on a footpath of contrapuntal ingenuity.

With the E flat major quintet K 614 Mozart created one last chamber masterpiece, which from the opening hunting signal of its Allegro di molto seems to have been deliberately fashioned as a final tribute to his spiritual forefather Haydn. The musical substance is tellingly deployed most democratically among the five players throughout its four movements. The Klenke Quartet’s vivacious reading aptly highlights its ravishing colours, its singing lines and its dynamic shifts but most significantly these players revel in Mozart’s propensity to provide opportunities for dialogue and even idle chatter. It is a terrific performance, and in this work, for me at least, this refined German group trumps even the fine efforts of the Nash Ensemble. It completes a musically satisfying and spaciously recorded survey which certainly matches the best available sets of these timeless masterpieces. I am certain these discs will continue to provide unalloyed joy as the years take their inevitable toll on this particular world-weary reviewer.

Richard Hanlon

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