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Mozart's Birthday - but a Minetti Quartet(t) Celebration

Minetti QuartettIf, after this week, we have passed the peak of the Mozart inundation/bonanza, it wasn’t half as painful as we thought it might be. Really, it wasn’t painful at all. Sure, there were a few concerts where an unseasonably lot of WAM showed up, but those were mostly minor events we would not have felt guilty skipping one way or the other. The NSO performing a semi-staged Mozart opera would have been a good idea in any given year – and with one lonely La Clemenza di Tito sticking out of the miniscule National Opera’s season, you couldn’t tell that anything special was going on in 2006. When Mitsuko Uchida played all Mozart at Strathmore it was still 2005, unrelated to the Mozart hoopla, and great! When Brendel will squeeze the Mozart Fantasia in C minor, K. 475, and the Rondo in A minor, K. 511, into his recital at the Kennedy Center on February 7th, we would have expected him to do so, anyway.

All that inconspicuous Mozart left the two-concert Mozart celebration at the Austrian Embassy (presented by the Embassy Series) one of the more notable Mozart-at-250 events. It featured the young Austrian Minetti Quartett… and even they dedicated only a part of their play-time to Mozart, the lion's share of the program going to Schubert. Two early, Sammartini-influenced quartets, K. 156 (134b) and K. 157, came first. They are neither the greatest of his works nor gems among his quartets, they show no influence of the already written and published quartets of Haydn, but they are improvements over the ‘Divertimenti’ Quartets that came a year earlier, in 1772. But what they positively bring to an evening of Mozart celebration is carefree beauty and boundless joy that isn’t reined in by the determination to make a great gesture or profound statement full of looming ‘meaning’.

Minetti Quartett - official PhotoFor those reasons it is all the better to hear the 17-year-old composer’s work played with unburdened freshness, by a quartet that is nearer to him in age than would be most. Instead of killing the works with undue polish, the Minetti Quartett worked their way through them with just the right amount of a light touch. Lest anyone think that “without undue polish” is code for “flawed and out of tune” (for which it usually is code), these four musicians who, as a quartet, have already established themselves in Austria as ‘the next big thing’, were as flawless as desirable in a live performance. Their exhaustion from a long trip and limited time to practice were not noticeable to the ear. Even hearing them in minor works, one is inclined to take out shares on their future stardom. One thing that struck in particular – or rather: what remarkably didn’t strike me – was that no one player stood out of this group as a superior or lesser member. I’ve heard plenty of young string quartets in the last few years and usually you can hear pretty quickly that the viola is perhaps above and beyond the rest or that the second violinist doesn’t match the first. Not so here. Maria Ehmer (first violin), Anna Knopp (second violin), Markus Huber (viola), and Leonhard Roczek (cello) played as a collective, counted supreme balancing among their assets, and succeeded not on individual ability (though plenty endowed in that field, too) but as a group.

The E-flat major String Quartet, D87 (formerly known as quartet no. 10, op. 125, #1) of Schubert continues the Mozart’s level of classical beauty, here touched up with a Romantic and denser feel. Lovely it is and surprisingly mature – only the Andante might have done well in a tighter version. The finale (Allegro) seemed just made for rummaging around in like four puppies, which is what the Minetti Quartett did… if with fleet fingers rather than big paws.

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, Complete Songs, G.Johnson et al.

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The beginning of the D810 was a little thin sounding – but a stave or two into that supreme quartet Mlle. Ehmer & Co made up for it with extraordinary élan. Like the “Trout” Quintet, “Death and the Maiden” gets its name from one of Schubert’s songs that stood model for one of the inner movements – in this case the second, the Andante con moto. Unlike the quintet, where the song is nearly as well known as the chamber work based on it, the song “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (D531) is more obscure. If the 209th birthday of Schubert on January 31st is not sufficient motivation or excuse to indulge in the monumental Schubert song collection on Hyperion (now out in a chronologically ordered box), do seek out volume 11 of the original series. A single disc of Brigitte Fassbänder singing songs relating to death. Not only will you find on it one of the finest renderings of “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” it’s altogether one of the best volumes among 40 already exquisite CDs.

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, Songs of Death, B. Fassbänder / G. Johnson

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At the Austrian Embassy, meanwhile, the Minetti Quartett followed a good first movement with a dreamlike, grabbing performance of the second. Such beautiful pianissimos; suddenly such seamless swells. The dedication of young hearts in the music elevated the performance far, far above the few individual flaws coming from the exquisitely delicate violins or that one moment in the movement's climax where things threatened to fly apart. The third and fourth movement were not much less convincing. More than worthy for Mozart’s birthday party and one of the finest chamber performances I’ve heard as part of the Embassy Series so far.

Other Reviews:

Music Reviews: Minetti String Quartet (Washington Post, January 30)
Too bad that the Austrian’s Presidency of the European Union occupied the back room though – it wrought havoc on the recently improving receptions at the Austrian Embassy. But what could have possibly necessitated that the wine was served in plastic cups and poured from Tupperware pitchers (I shudder at the very memory), I can’t imagine. But that surprising lapse in taste on the part of the Austrian hosts was quickly forgotten with that special musical performance in the ears still, and the teeth sunk into the parting gift of a Mozart-Kugel.

Addendum: The Minetti Quartet would go on to record a superb, absolutely joyous Haydn disc.