Friday, October 29, 2021

Mozart and Schubert Masterpieces in the South Bay

The New Hollywood String Quartet, l-r: Tereza Stanislav (violin), Andrew Shulman (cello),
Rafael Rishik (violin), and Robert Brophy (viola).


New Hollywood String Quartet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Mozart in 1782, the year he completed
his String Quartet No. 14.
Some works subtitled "Spring" really justify the epithet—think of the "bursting-from-the-bud" exuberance with which Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major opens, or the leafy radiance that imbues Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 5. But to my ears there's not much vernal imagery in Mozart's "Spring" quartet, as his String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387 is sometimes nicknamed.

And that, I hasten to add, is anything but an adverse criticism of the performance by the New Hollywood String Quartet (Tereza Stanislav and Rafael Rishik, violins; Robert Brophy, viola; Andrew Shulman, cello) that formed the first half of the SBCMS's October concert; this was a tough-minded and scrupulously detailed account of a work that eschews pictorialism and, as much as any other in his output, belies any view of Mozart as a purveyor of aural candy.

Haydn, c.1770.
Within his total of 23 string quartets, two groups of six were particularly influenced by the example of Joseph Haydn: Nos. 8-13 (1773), written in the wake of exposure to Haydn's Op. 17 and Op. 20 sets (1770/ 1771), and Nos. 14-19 (1782-1785), which respond as much to Haydn's Op. 33 set (1781) as the earlier group did to their exemplars. By this time, however, the two composers' personal friendship and mutual esteem had reinforced the link; these six quartets of Mozart were dedicated to Haydn, and indeed have become known as his "Haydn" quartets.

Before Haydn's Op. 20, string quartets tended to feature a soloistic first violin part supported by the other instruments, but here for the first time all four became independent equals; a decade later Op. 33 built on this achievement but in works that are often lighter in texture and tone than their predecessors. In his "Haydn" quartets Mozart took all of Haydn's "lessons" and ran with them, and K.387 is arguably the most intricately wrought of the lot.

Title-page of Mozart's String Quartets
, with dedication to Haydn.
Motifs are stated, combined, and developed by all four instruments with brilliant resourcefulness, and the New Hollywoods' attention to details of dynamic and balance in the Pacific Unitarian Church's relatively dry acoustic revealed "the fruit of long and laborious study" (Mozart writing to Haydn, on the occasion of his dedication when the six quartets were finally published in 1785) with all the clarity that one could desire.

Perhaps the most remarkable movement is the Menuetto, very long (in full sonata form) and with innovative rhythmic and dynamic dislocations that jolt the ear as much as they must tax the players: for example, all four in turn have to switch nimbly between piano and forte on the successive single notes of the up-and-down sliding chromatic scale that forms part of the first subject—the New Hollywood Quartet managed this without dropping a stitch.

A generous clutch of repeats added to the pleasure of this superb performance, including the expositions of both first movement and finale, and every single one in the Menuetto and its Trio—making the movement (usually the shortest in a Classical sonata) in this case the longest in duration. Only the very rarely observed second-half repeats of the first and last movements were omitted.

Antonio Lysy.
A single half-hour item in the first half of the concert and only one other piece in the second half? Few indeed are the great Classical chamber works on sufficient scale for this program layout not to leave an audience short-changed, but there was no chance of that here, with the inclusion of Schubert's last, most expansive and, in the view of many, greatest masterpiece, his String Quintet in C major, D. 956.

Completed only a few weeks before his death at the age of 31 on November 19, 1828, it manages to be at once a valedictory vision from the very cliff-edge of mortality, a triumphant affirmation of creativity, and a heartfelt expression of the emotional heights and depths of human experience. No one performance can encompass all that this astonishing work contains, but the New Hollywood Quartet, together with Antonio Lysy playing the crucial second cello part, did pretty well.

Schubert in 1827.
Unlike a previous performance by C├ęcilia Tsan and friends reviewed here, they omitted the long exposition repeat in the first movement, but otherwise were masters of its magnificently wide-ranging architecture. Similarly effective were the divine stasis of the Adagio's opening and close, and the seismic turbulence of its central section, not to mention both the exuberance of the Scherzo and its 180-degree plunge into Stygian darkness in the Trio. 

Most telling of all, though, was the Allegretto finale, where the New Hollywood Quartet's scrupulousness revealed, in the dry acoustic of the Pacific Unitarian Church, all the complexities of inner detail that make the finale a truly worthy crown to this pinnacle of Schubert's achievement.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, October 24, 2021.
Images: New Hollywood String Quartet: Sam Muller; Haydn, Mozart, Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Title-page:; Antonio Lysy: Connor Vance. 

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