Today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral featured the Temescal String Quartet (violinists Barbara Riccardi and Katherine Button, violist Jonna Hervig, and cellist Ruth Lane) with guest artist Tom Rose on clarinet. Both works on the program were by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The first, K. 168 in F major, was composed in Vienna in September of 1773 while he was employed as court musician to Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo of Salzburg (his first “professional” commitment after years of touring with his father Leopold). The second was the K. 581 quintet for clarinet and strings in A major, composed during his final years in Vienna for the clarinetist Anton Stadler.
While not Mozart’s first string quartet, K. 168 is the first one in “full symphonic” four-movement form; and, while Mozart was still in his teens, it displayed the sort of maturity that would make anyone serious about music sit up and take notice. The most important “anyone” I would have in mind would be Joseph Haydn, who had begun composing his four-movement string quartets in 1769 and may well have provided at least some of the influence for Mozart to do the same. The opening Allegro movement certainly has the same good spirits that abound in Haydn’s music, but the following Andante is played on muted strings in F minor. This is thus one of the earliest examples of how minor mode could inspire some of Mozart’s most adventurous passages, beginning with a daring four-voice canon in the opening measures. A more interesting influence from Haydn, however, may have come from the “Sun” quartets, which he composed in 1772. Three of these quartets, Hoboken III/32, 35, and 26 have fugues for their final movements; and in K. 168, in the concluding Allegro movement, Mozart moves from an initial four-voice canon to an extended four-voice fugue.
Temescal’s execution of this early example of Mozart’s sophisticated techniques was occasionally a bit ragged. However, the sense of pitch was, for the most part, certain. Furthermore, the interplay of the four voices of both the canonic and fugal writing was certainly clear enough to appreciate the tricks that Mozart was pulling from his sleeve. Most important was that the Quartet made a solid case for devoting as much attention to these early efforts as to, for example, the quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, which always seem to garner the lion’s share of attention in recital programs.
There was no problem, however, in trying to make a case for the K. 581 clarinet quintet. This is a Mozart favorite, even among those who are not necessarily rabid clarinet lovers. It was composed two years before the K. 622 clarinet concerto, which is also in A major; and one occasionally encounters signs of “family resemblance,” particularly in some of the rhetorical turns Mozart takes when the clarinet shifts from one register to another, creating the effect of two separate voices with decidedly different sonorities.
Rose’s command of the clarinet part in K. 581 was always solid, providing a firm orientation when the Temescal would occasionally drift back to that ragged execution. The only really problematic passage occurred in the coda of the final movement (after a set of variations on a theme), in which the strings need to get things going down the final stretch without the clarinet. This involved a tempo shift that sounded as if it had not been settled with all performers in agreement, but it did not take long for them to recover their bearings. The result was an all-Mozart “lunch break” that was a highly satisfying way to take a pause in the day.