INCANDESCENT MOZART BY AMERICAN QUARTET
By Lawrence Budmen
The relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Anton Stadler (1753-1812) was often complex and turmoil ridden. Stadler was the first great virtuoso clarinetist. A pioneer on his instrument, Stadler invented a downward extension. This new "basset clarinet" inspired Mozart to write two of his sublime late masterpieces - the Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto. Stadler was himself a composer who resented Mozart's genius. Living in Mozart's home, Stadler spent the composer's money and was a less than faithful friend. Stadler would abandon Mozart during his difficult final year; yet, were it not for Stadler's musical innovations, Mozart would not have composed the serene "Clarinet Quintet in A Major," K.581. (Mozart, Stadler, and colleagues premiered the work in December, 1789 in Vienna.) This marvelous score was the featured work on a stellar chamber music concert by the American String Quartet on February 3 at the Miniaci Performing Arts Center at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
Mozart's late scores are distinguished by an inner pathos and autumnal sadness that lye beneath the sparkling surface of these musical masterpieces. In the Clarinet Quintet, the elegance and aristocratic authority of Mozart's melodic inspiration are joined by a new formal rigor and understated serenity. The American Quartet players (Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violins; Daniel Avshalomov, viola; and Margo Tatgenhorst Drakos, cello) were joined by the brilliantly gifted American clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein for an incandescent performance of this landmark opus. From the very first notes of the opening Allegro, the American foursome exuded a tonal beauty, ensemble precision, and sweeping musicality that are the sine qua non of great chamber music performances. The luminous beauty with which phrases were turned, the sweetness of instrumental sound was an artistic treasure! Fiterstein's mellow, beautiful clarinet tone blended with the ensemble wonderfully. There was a natural, totally unforced quality to the performance that is all too rare in contemporary music making. Fiterstein's understated shaping of the movement's second subject was exquisitely molded. The calm beauty of the Larghetto seemed to breathe from another realm. Fiterstein's clarion tone and beautiful phrasing were a model of superb instrumental control and mastery. The invigorating accentuations of the Menuetto brought real character to the music. (This was not a facile performance that merely presented the notes accurately.) The string players brought special elegance to the trio - Avshalomov's viola and Drakos's cello providing a rich, dark musical undercurrent. The sprightly Úlan of the final Allegretto con Variazione was a delight. Fiterstein and the American Quartet players made each variation sound fresh and surprising - as if the music were newly created. The intoxicating brio of the coda capped a performance that approached that rarified aura of perfection! A true paragon of Mozart chamber music playing!
The American String Quartet is celebrating its 30th anniversary season. For many years, the group has been a resident ensemble at the Aspen Music Festival and the Manhattan School of Music. This superb foursome is quite simply one of the world's finest string quartets. Next to the chiseled perfection of the Emerson Quartet (whose recent Beethoven-Schubert program was a high point of the South Florida music season) it would be difficult to find a more polished, musically sophisticated group than the American foursome. Their performance of the "String Quartet in C Minor," Opus 51, No.1 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) probed the depths of the music's romantic passions. (Ever the perfectionist Brahms discarded several string quartets and thoroughly revised the C Minor Quartet before allowing it to be published in 1873.) The spiraling intensity and momentum of the first movement Allegro was inexorable. The rich string tone and enveloping beauty of utterance in the Romanze: Poco Adagio were overwhelming. Such beautiful phrasing and deeply probing musicality would be hard to equal! The long breathed elasticity of musical line in the Allegretto molto moderato e comodo seemed to make time stop - all achieved with simple economy of musical means. Winograd's soaring violin and strong leadership whirled through the tempest tossed drama of the concluding Allegro with searing power. The quartet's beautifully balanced ensemble playing was the sine qua non of chamber music performance!
The bright, up-close acoustical perspective of the Miniaci Center greatly aided the intimacy of the chamber music experience. This was particularly true in the opening "String Quartet in D Major," Opus 71, No.2 by the father of the string quartet Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). The quartet's crisp articulation of the opening Adagio: Allegro set the pace for a brilliantly virtuosic performance. The players brought just the right amount of hesitation cum drama to the pauses in the introduction. The Adagio benefited from wonderfully pure string articulation and a sense of Classical line. The American foursome captured the whimsical humor of the Menuet: Allegro/Trio. The Finale: Allegretto was an insouciant confection - played with vigor and bravado. A great performance of a Haydn masterpiece!
The American String Quartet has that rare ability to make every score sound new and freshly minted. Captured in an intimate acoustical environment, the group's collaboration with Alexander Fiterstein (in the Mozart Clarinet Quintet) produced music making that approached sublimity!