For well over a century now, wags have encouraged fans of Western classical music to place Mozart’s four late string quintets among the first real peaks of chamber music. Consulting our musical equivalents of Lonely Planet or Rick Steves, we learn how these pieces rise out of the low foothills of C.P.E. Bach (a more interesting place to visit than commonly thought, as the better guides point out) and the higher foothills of Haydn, inaugurating that great range destined to be crowned by the peaks of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and their lesser yet still lofty colleagues.
It is potted history, potted and pat, bearing that air of too-tidy simplicity that reliably triggers people’s bunk radars. Yet it isn’t bunk. Western classical music now shares the stage with many other musics (to the point where “shares” should arguably be in quotes), but within the classical world the intervening century-plus of composing and scholarship having done far more to support the traditional view than challenge it. And it still helps the curious listener to be prompted to spot the emergence of techniques and expressive modes that would almost immediately be taken up by the leading lights of the next generation, and in many cases would go on to serve for multiple generations beyond them. The sort of knowledge that was crystallized in books like Charles Rosen’s 1971 “The Classical Style” can still help a listener gain access to what makes these quintets something special.
What is missing from this view, other than, as noted, all the other musics in the world, is an awareness of just how much of a struggle was necessary for any of this music to emerge in the first place. The Baedekers of Beethoven emphasize that his subscription concerts were something new and uncertain in a world where church or court jobs were the only established opportunities for musicians, and the fact that Haydn wore a servant’s livery is a staple of program notes. But the notion that Haydn’s music was effectively in livery as well tends to go unremarked. It takes a prodigious effort of will and imagination today to conjure a past era when music was expected to be merely pleasantly decorative and subservient, or for us now to register just how subversive it was for composers to invest their work with the types of complex relationships that would make it capable of hijacking the attention of listeners in a way no archduke or archbishop would ever knowingly have countenanced.
The performances of the last two Mozart string quintets by the Boston Artists Ensemble in Salem’s Hamilton Hall on Friday evening revealed the tension between the cultural framework of these works and the urge to break out of that framework. The vigorous and alert playing came across in an ideal, intimate acoustic environment (space for perhaps 300, high-ceilinged and hard-surfaced) without which no chamber music experience can be quite complete. Designed in 1805, Hamilton Hall retains the major part of its original character and somewhat eccentric interior configuration, and even today is the site of period balls and dances, where local residents in formal dress may be found stepping through the serpentine formations of a Federal-era collation with an absence of self-consciousness that has to be seen to be believed.
A beloved fixture of the Boston music scene for decades, the BAE has succeeded beyond all likelihood in retaining a real sense of freshness and engagement. When violinist Peter Zazovsky remarks to the audience that the group is delighted to be here for them, you sense that it’s actually true. If the entire set-up — the performers arranged in a U with their music stands and floor lamps, the audience in a semicircle around them — might have existed in that same spot at any time in the last 200 years, the presence and immediacy of the playing made it decisively about the moment. Playing like this can seem more valuable today rather than less, because it shows that there is not necessarily anything tired about this tradition, and that while stylish clothing or visual projections or other innovations may indeed be valid extensions or updates, they are by themselves neither necessary nor sufficient. The music is always about the music, and the BAE has a genuine flair for quietly reminding us of this.
The two final Mozart quintets make a wonderful program for their built-in contrasts. The g minor, K. 516, from 1787, tends to be described as tragic, brooding, anguished, despairing, and the like. To my ear, what stands out is less a sense of tragedy than of gravity; it is perhaps the first chamber music of any kind to carry the kind of emotional heft that became so central to later chamber composers. The BAE nicely underscored this by playing the second movement, marked “allegretto”, as slow as one might while still letting it reflect its minuet roots. This makes the piece a matter of a tumultuous, deeply unsettling first movement followed by two and a half slow movements, the half being the adagio introduction to the sunny finale. That finale comes in for its share of head-scratching and carping, and of compensatory tortured explications, since it can be heard as trivializing all that went before. The BAE’s approach deals with this very directly, by giving us such a rich quantity of sober soul-searching that the finale, while sounding perfectly convincing in itself, feels completely inadequate to the task of wiping away what came before. It’s a wonderful effect.
All sorts of things fascinating things go on in K. 516. You could be fully entertained by paying attention to nothing more than the number of different ways Mozart divides and combines the five voices, and the fluidity with which he moves from one to the other. The same is true for the way he shifts constantly, and with equally apparent ease, between sunlight and shadow — a tactic Brahms later made his own, to unforgettable effect in pieces like the clarinet quintet and many of the late intermezzi. But most intriguing are the constant ways in which content pushes against form. Mozart opens the music up in every way, using repetition and extension of phrases (this a tactic so well utilized by Schubert) to add not only scale but emotional resonance, and to give the musical content a chance to stretch and even overrun the form here and there. The development section of the first movement not only is stunning, but also continues to infect the recapitulation, as little development-type gestures continue to pop up and momentarily take over what is “supposed to be” a more or less reassuring restatement of earlier material.
The Quintet K. 614, in E-flat major dates from four years later, but is a better-behaved and more subtle creature, taking more of a look back to Haydn than a look ahead. But it has its moments of moxie, in particular a fugato in the last movement. The BAE drove this passage for all it was worth, making it feel like a delightful and long-overdue, if still civil, eruption of mayhem. “Enough is enough” was what it felt like, and given that in formal terms it is also the only intrusion of “high” musical texture — an outburst of unrepentant counterpoint in a piece whose most obvious feature up to that point has been a little farm-dance drone section — it is perhaps exactly what Mozart had in mind.
BAE founder Jonathan Miller winningly underplayed the cello line in his trademark way. Bayla Keyes and Zazovsky traded off the violin parts, Stephen Ansell and superb guest performer Beth Guterman Chu the viola chairs. The BAE’s style has always put character and presence ahead of intonation and polish, and this night proved no exception; Zazofsky in particular, tackling the high-lying first violin part of K. 614, struggled to keep the pitch within bounds at times. But in live performance, character and presence matter most, as they well know. If you want precision and polish, plenty of recordings can provide that. In person and in the moment, the BAE has long delivered the goods, and in this concert showed they’re as capable of that as ever.