Monday, November 21, 2022

Mozart and Beethoven Wind Quintets at the South Bay

The Thies Consort: l-r Jennifer Johnson Cullinan, Judith Farmer, Robert Thies, Laura Brenes,
Sérgio Coelho.


The Thies Consort, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Robert Thies.
In his introductory words to the performance of Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16 of 1796, which formed the climax to the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s last concert of 2022, the pianist Robert Thies drew attention to several similarities between this work and Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat major, K. 452, composed 12 years previously.

So far as is known, Mozart was the first composer to write for the combination of piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, and though it’s not certain whether Beethoven heard his work, or saw Mozart’s manuscript, the fact that his own quintet for this same, and still exceedingly rare, combination of instruments is in the same key and follows the same structural ground-plan argues strongly for some awareness on Beethoven’s part of its predecessor.

Mozart in 1782, painted
by Joseph Lange.
Both quintets are in three movements—a spaciously-conceived sonata structure with a slow introduction, then a similarly-paced central slow movement, and lastly a fast rondo-finale—but beyond that, as the strongly articulated and eloquent performances by the Thies Consort made clear, Beethoven’s work has a distinctive character of its own, different in many respects from the Mozart.

This is apparent from the very first measures. Mozart begins Largo with serene, widely separated woodwind chords supported by the piano, between which the piano alone muses on a seven-note figure, subtly altered each time. He then reverses the texture, so that the winds take over the seven-note figure. Beethoven, on the other hand (but at a similar Grave tempo), launches a dotted, downwards-stepping statement from all five instruments. Though marked piano, the effect is of quiet, assertive strength, intimating challenge and drama to come.

The young Beethoven.
This most certainly happens. Throughout, Beethoven’s significantly longer first movement (given added breadth here, as with the Mozart, by the observation of the exposition repeat) unfolds in the more dramatic and rhetorical manner, and whereas Mozart concludes with a neatly concise coda that underlines his movement’s basic combination of poised serenity and contained playfulness, Beethoven unexpectedly takes the drama up a significant notch by modulating into an extended coda with a real “Now what?!” effect—superbly dramatized by the performers.

This was a rare opportunity to “compare and contrast” side-by-side two apparently very similar but in fact strongly differing works, and it would be difficult to imagine performances that better demonstrated the qualities of each than those by the Thies Consort (Robert Thies, piano; Jennifer Johnson Cullinan, oboe; Sérgio Coelho, clarinet; Judith Farmer, bassoon; Laura Brenes, horn).

Gernot Wolfgang and Judith Farmer.
The Mozart filled the first half, and to begin the second we had the perfect “palate cleanser” between two such large and Classically constructed works in the form of Passing Through, for clarinet (or oboe) and bassoon (or bass clarinet), written in 2011 by the Austrian-born but locally-based composer Gernot Wolfgang, who was present to talk about the origin and nature of the piece.

This witty, jazz-inflected work lasts no longer than 10 minutes, and the insouciant inconsequentiality with which short phrases, and even single notes and pauses, were tossed back and forth between the players (Sérgio Coelho, clarinet, and Judith Farmer, bassoon) more than once raised amused and appreciative murmurs from the audience. To characterize its three brief movements one can do no better than to quote the composer directly, from an earlier program note:

Sérgio Coelho and Judith Farmer Passing Through.
The title, Passing Through, relates to the quick, random thoughts that I had while trying to name the individual movements. The thoughts seemed to spring out of nowhere and went as quickly as they came, almost without consequence.

"Bounce refers to the bass line in 7/8 played by the bassoon at the beginning of the first movement. Evening Song resides within a tranquil, peaceful atmosphere. The Flea comments on the jumpiness and, at times, unpredictability of the third movement.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, LA Harbor College/ Pacific Unitarian Church, Friday/Sunday, 18/20 November, 2022.
Images: The performers: author; Robert Thies: artist website; Gernot Wolfgang: composer website; Mozart and Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons.

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