Szymanowski Quartet, with Richard O’Neill (viola): The Complete String Quintets of Mozart, Playhouse, February 18 and 20, 2018.

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It has been many years since the complete Mozart String Quintets have been performed here, and this traversal by the Szymanowski Quartet was especially rewarding. One recalls several fine concerts from these artists in the romantic repertoire, but only Haydn among the earlier masters. The current interest in Mozart likely follows from the quartet’s recent change in membership, and the need to reconsolidate repertoire and performance standards by a return to ‘the classics’. The quartet’s warm, burnished sound, transparency in voicings, and structural awareness remain as conspicuous as before, and these are certainly attributes that can be put to good work in Mozart. Playing the six string quintets together is nonetheless a major challenge: the works have almost unrivalled diversity and depth – for many, they constitute the most sublime reaches of the composer’s art – and demand unflagging concentration. Overall, the Szymanowski’s traversal found many instances of great beauty and insight, mining the rich diversity in the constructions, and putting the finishing touch on the cycle with a strong reading of the heavenly G minor Quintet.

It is of some interest that the reconstitution of this Polish ensemble began in 2014 when first violinist Agata Szymczewska arrived. Robert Kowalski then joined as the second violin while cellist Monika Leskovar came on board only six months ago, leaving wonderful-toned violist Volodia Mykytka as the only original member. Many string quartets have changed their personnel by one or two players slowly over time, but changing three players in three years is a formidable adjustment! For these quintets, the ensemble was joined by estimable second violist Richard O’Neill, a member of the Ehnes Quartet.

In spite of the relative unfamiliarity of the players, one ingredient in the success of these performances was just how well each of the two violins and violas managed to work together, finding strong interactions in and between their voices, as set on top of Leskovar’s anchoring cello. The style of the playing was generally deliberative and patiently detailed, contrasting with some of the more urgent and quicksilver interpretations of the past. There was also a degree of rustic colour present, in both accents and nuance.  The sense of patience reminded me somewhat of the Chilingirian Quartet and their fine traversals of Mozart years ago; the accents and colour possibly recall the Talich Quartet’s esteemed integral recording. Throughout, the group’s apparent challenge was to open out enough interpretative space to register full detail and instrumental conversation while not compromising the music’s natural motion and inevitability.  

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Mozart’s 6 String Quintets cover his entire compositional span, starting with the B-flat major Quintet K174, written when he was 17, to the E-flat major Quintet K614, written in the last year of his life. These two quintets were paired as the opening works of the first concert, and the group provided very convincing readings. A more spacious approach to the former certainly augmented its usual ‘divertimenti’ outlines: there was more structural weight and detailing throughout and more emotional depth in the Adagio in particular.  But, always, it was the beautiful timbres, the suspending ostinatos, and the underlying fluidity of expression that carried this approach. The rhythmic cogency and colour of K614 was equally inspiring: the counterpoint was judiciously exposed, with a consistently rewarding balance between the voices. This was playing of real character: the tonal strength and leadership abilities of first violin Agata Szymczewska were always on display, as was the telling colour and sinew of the two violas, Mykytka and O’Neill.

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The first of the ‘great’ string quintets, K515 in C major, closed the first concert, and this presented more of a challenge. The deliberate tempo for the long opening allegro again allowed probing detail and fine shading, but there was more of a methodical feel to the music making and less sense of spontaneity. With the exposition repeat observed, and not many variations in emotional intensity over its contours, this movement ended up a little long-winded. The playing in the following movements had appealing fluidity and tonal luster yet still seemed to err on the cautious side, not quite finding a confident natural line or digging fully into its moments of intimacy. The fulsomeness of the expression in the Andante seemed slightly misplaced, while it was more a feeling of determination than burgeoning joy that permeated the finale. This reading could work to a sharper focus.

The second concert opened with the tempestuous C minor Quintet K406, and the Szymanowski Quartet certainly dug into its minor key intimations to give a romantic, almost Schubertian, reading. By all standards, this was a thoughtful and beautiful account, deeply felt, full of subtle allusions and dramatic narrative. On its own terms, it was quite eye-opening in what it probed, and unusually sensual in the way some of the instrumental timbres were explored. Nonetheless, the slow speed might be considered controversial: some might prefer the work to mimic the (typically) more athletic pace of its companion version, the Wind Serenade K388. 

The performance of the penultimate D major Quintet K593 was not as distinctive, and did not have the finely-honed finish of its companion K614.  Fortunately, the most of exalted piece of them all, the G minor Quintet K516, brought everything home in fine form: a judicious tempo for its famous opening Allegro, wonderful feeling and suspension in the final Adagio, followed by uplifting spring and purpose in the closing Allegro. The only thing I might have asked for was a greater sense of intimacy in the Andante.

These two concerts were a wonderful treat – and a remarkable success for a reconstituted ensemble that is still getting up to speed. The Szymanowski’s interpretations clearly tend to the broad and sometimes romantic side – which may be slightly too ‘big’ for some tastes. Nonetheless, in those readings which stand as their most finished products (and I would count four out of the six quintets performed here in that category), one would be hard-pressed to find playing of greater thoughtfulness and tonal beauty.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018