Arts & Events

Alexander String Quartet’s Final “Mozart in Vienna” Program

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday January 15, 2016 - 02:41:00 PM

My routine of playing tennis every Saturday morning was disrupted by the ongoing rainstorms of El Niño, and as a result I was able to attend the Alexander String Quartet’s final “Mozart in Vienna” program at 10:00 am on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. These “Mozart in Vienna” programs have been presided over each Saturday by music historian-in-residence Robert Greenberg, who introduces the works to be performed and lectures on their salient musical attributes. Brooklyn-born Greenberg, who was referrred to by The Bangor Daily News (Maine) as “the Elvis of music history and appreciation,” treats his lectures as a kind of stand-up comedy routine, and he comes off at times almost as a carnival barker. Nonetheless, Greenberg knows his music, and he is at his best when, as he did on January 9, he coaxes the Alexander String Quartet to play the very phrases the lecturer wishes to call to our attention. 

The program on January 9 consisted of Mozart’s String Quartet in F Major, K. 590, and Mozart’s Viola Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 614. These are very late works by Mozart – the former, composed in June 1790, is the last string quartet Mozart wrote; and the latter, completed on April 12, 1791, is the composer’s last chamber work. The Alexander String Quartet, which celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2011-12, is comprised of Zakarias Grafilo, violin, Frederick Lifsitz, violin, Paul Yarbrough, viola, and Sandy Wilson, cello. For Mozart’s Viola Quintet, the Alexander String Quartet was joined by guest violist Charith Premawardhana. 

In discussing Mozart’s F Major String Quartet, Robert Greenberg noted that Mozart may have concocted a white lie regarding the origin of this work. Upon his return from a visit to King Freidrich Wilhelm of Prussia in Berlin in 1789, Mozart allegedly put it out that he had played before the king, who rewarded him with a golden snuffbox filled with a hundred louis d’or and a commission to compose six string quartets. Only three such quartets were actually written by Mozart, and were nicknamed the “King of Prussia Quartets.” The problem is, however, that apparently the king did not receive Mozart, gave him no gift, and commissioned nothing from him. Mozart seems to have concocted the gift-and-commission story as a way of saving face; and he presumably still harbored hopes that when he eventually completed the set of three, not six, string quartets, he might find favor with the king by presenting them to the music-loving Friedrich Wilhelm. Alas, this did not happen, and Mozart subsequently wrote to his friend Puchberg on June 12, 1790, “I am now compelled to dispose of my quartets (this wearisome work) for a pepper-corn fee just in order to lay my hands on some cash.”  

Whatever may be the origin of Quartets K. 588, 589 and 590, we cannot help appreciating them as examples of late Mozart’s expansive notion of quartet-writing. Unlike the earlier set of six quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn, Mozart now emphasizes a concentrated unity over dramatic contrasts. This is particularly evident in the F Major Quartet, K. 590. Robert Greenberg noted the apparently simple material out of which Mozart builds each movement in this quartet. Greenberg called our attention to the opening bars consisting of a rising arpeggio followed immediately by a scalar descent. From this simple structure Mozart created a scintillating dialogue between the first violin and cello, with the cello introducing the second subject. The development is short but concentrated, and after a lengthy recapitulation the first movement ends on a strangely offhand gesture, almost fading away. The second movement, an Andante, is built on only one theme. Indeed, it is almost no theme at all, but merely a rhythm, out of which the entire movement is constructed. Beethoven, Greenberg noted, much admired this Mozart quartet and was inspired to write a similar movement based on a rhythm in the second movement of his F Major Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1. The third movement of Mozart’s F Major Quartet offers asymmetric themes in a minuet which opens with seven bars and a trio which opens with five bars. The final movement, an Allegro, offers a rondo theme developed in concertante fashion by the first violin, and excels in dazzling counterpoint. First violinist Zakarias Grafilo handled the concertante passages in brilliant fashion. 

After intermission the Alexander String Quartet returned to the stage, augmented by Guest Artist Charith Premawardhana on second viola. Robert Greenberg returned to introduce Mozart’s Viola Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 614. Greenberg noted the Haydnesque gaiety and rusticity of the opening theme – two violas that sound like a pair of hunting horns. This fanfare and its accompanying trills return throughout the first movement. Soon the first violin begins to soar above the lower instruments, at one point reaching a high D. After several long runs by the first violin, the hornlike fanfare and its trills return to close out this opening movement. The second movement, an intricate Andante, is structured as a theme with variations. The theme itself, sung initially by the first violin, sounds like an aria, and it has been likened to Belmonte’s aria “Wenn der Freude Thränen fliessen” from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. With each set of variations, the music becomes more complex and more chromatic, even introducing unusual dissonances. The third movement begins with a minuet while the trio section offers a German Ländler dance in which the first violin sings a country fiddler’s tune over a drone-like accompaniment by the cello. This too seems a tribute to Haydn. The fourth and final movement, a rondo marked Allegro, is constructed on a single theme, yet another tribute to Haydn. However, to Haydn’s straightforward approach to single-themed movements Mozart adds his own concentrated polyphonic writing. The simple opening theme is given complex fugal development that anticipates Beethoven’s use of fugal material in his own late string quartets. Here Mozart offers virtuoso passages for the first violin, admirably played by Zakarias Grafilo, and the Viola Quintet in E-flat Major rushes to an energetic close. 

Although I missed my usual Saturday morning tennis game, I was admirably compensated by the opportunity to hear the excellent Alexander String Quartet in their final “Mozart in Vienna” concert.