Mozart, Beethoven: Quintets for piano and winds

Ensemble Dialoghi
harmonia mundi musicque HMM 905296
K452, Op. 16

It is not often possible to place similar works by Mozart and Beethoven side by side and unequivocally assert that the Mozart is the greater, but for all the prevarication of the notes accompanying this new coupling it does apply to the E-flat quintets for piano and wind (oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon). There is, of course, a reason. While the Beethoven is a relatively early work, composed in 1796 (the year before the C-major Piano Concerto), the Mozart dates from his high maturity, 1784, a period during which he was composing the six great string quartets dedicated to Haydn. Indeed, in an oft quoted passage from a letter to his father Leopold, Mozart wrote that at its first performance the quintet ‘called forth the very greatest applause: I myself consider it the best work I have ever composed’.

While we must probably allow for the understandable enthusiasm of the moment in this verdict, the quintet is a work of sublime qualities that surely unquestionably acted as the inspiration and model for Beethoven’s work a dozen years later. Not only is the key and layout of each work the same, with three movements, the first of which opens with a slow introduction, but there are also thematic similarities between the two works. Yet Beethoven at the age of 26 was already very much his own man and there are also significant differences between the two, which can immediately be heard in the contrasts between the two slow introductions, where Beethoven gives us an improvisatory, fantasia like preamble introduced by hunting calls that differs significantly from Mozart’s more structured opening. The latter, at once more contrapuntal and already reaching for the sublime by the time we reach the wind’s imitative descending figure (ff bar 9), transports us to quite a different world. As do the slow movements. Beethoven’s Andante cantabile is based on a song-like theme introduced by the piano, continuing as a quasi-rondo with concertante opportunities for the four wind instruments in the course of its dreamily romantic discourse. Mozart’s Larghetto is again more highly structured, its translucent theme given to the wind to instigate an exploration of dynamics and colour, much of it over the piano’s bed of arpeggiated figuration.

It is, I think, the greater directness of the Beethoven that for me makes its performance by the Barcelona-based Ensemble Dialoghi the more satisfying of the two. But there is no doubting that this fine group of players, all members of leading European period instrument orchestras, are technically outstanding and have obviously worked hard to achieve an excellent balance. That is no easy matter in such works, though it does help to have a fortepiano, here a copy of a Viennese instrument made Walter’s firm around 1800, which in the hands Cristina Esclapez produces some beguiling tone in quieter passages. This is especially notable in the beautiful playing of the lovely Beethoven central movement mentioned above. If I’m a little less happy about the Mozart it is because I don’t find the Dialoghis make enough of Mozart’s often extremely subtle dynamic contrasts. Again we can turn to the central Larghetto for an illustration: The first wind motif marked p is immediately answered by a more assertive f for full ensemble before continuing with a dialogue between piano and wind again marked p. Yet we hear little of those contrasts here or throughout the movement, where tension built and released through crescendos answered by piano is too often ironed out by uniformity.

This perhaps sounds hypercritical and many listeners will probably not share my concerns, but I feel there is more to the Mozart than is revealed here. Notwithstanding, there can be no gainsaying the expertise and general musicality of these engaging performances, which have been very well recorded. The notes – which include a somewhat pretentious and unnecessary ‘hypothetical narrative’ for both works – are unusually extensive.

Brian Robins

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