CD Review–Mozart & The Contemporary

CD Review

Mozart & The Contemporary: Mozart/Russo/Schlenck/Fan/Hoffman

CRS CD 1191

What can I say about this canonic work, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, K. 581? It puts me in a happy place, as I have not heard it for many years.  Although I do not hold Mozart in quite the esteem many others do, this piece is absolutely wonderful, and I will leave it to those who have already written about it to describe it better than I.  If nothing else, have a look at the performance of the Quintet in the final episode of the TV series M*A*S*H,  as an example of how popular culture can, on rare occasions, show genuine respect for classical music.

The recording sound has a lovely intimacy here, as if recorded in a moderately-sized but nicely alive room.  The string quartet (and the clarinet) remain unobtrusively in the middle of the stereo field, a touch which is reminiscent of the older mono recordings, yet which still preserves the stereo space.  Reminiscence is also active in the performances, as The Old City String Quartet, all recent graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music, evoke older quartets like the Guarnieri in their expressive yet understated playing.  As always, Russo’s playing also evokes older masters of the instrument through his emphasis on tone, which always carries through even in the most intricate passages.  I highly recommend this performance both for its absolute quality, and its links with classic older interpretations and recordings.

 John Russo’s Clarinet Quintet begins in a manner quite different from his Sonata No. 6, reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Although the gentle diatonicism of the Sonata is present, there is a much more declarative sense to the music, a Stravinsky-esque angularity which, while still largely diatonic, brings in many chromatic notes by virtue of the fact that the oft-used interval of the major 7th tends to stretch the tonal boundaries, resolving to notes (and chords) which are foreign to the diatonic. However, because of their placement, these notes become an expressive rather than merely dissonant factor in the music.  These disjunct intervals add a “reaching” quality to the music as well; and, because I have a feeling they grew primarily out of the needs of the ear rather than any invented system, are simultaneously sweet and sour.

The second movement starts out largely in conjunct tonal motion, yet finds its way to some dissonances outside the diatonic via stepwise rather than disjunct interval motion.  These dissonances are treated to some extent as passing tones, and remind me of some of David Diamond’s string writing, particularly the Rounds for string orchestra.  The chromaticism thickens in the center, yet the essential tonality is preserved in the clear and simple melodic lines in the clarinet ,which rise out of the dense string chords. This is a texture beautifully suited to the instrumentation of the Quintet, highlighting the clarinet yet dwelling intently on the strings.  A bridge in which all instruments are momentarily chromatic ends on a kind of half-cadence which introduces the next movement.

The Andante third movement works more and more towards the chromatic, which finally wins out in what is either strict or free dodecaphony—uncharacteristic of Russo’s writing, yet which still catches the attention through the characteristic forward propulsion of his melodies and textures.  This is definitely not Milton Babbit’s dodecaphonic writing, as Babbit’s owes much to the serialization of most of the parameters of the music, whereas John’s writing seems only serialized in pitch-class.  The essential expressivity is preserved in natural rather than pre-programmed progressions of rhythm and timbre.

John Schlenck’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings sets a tone characteristic of the composer: textures somewhat more fragmented than Russo’s, and more chromatic.  In the first movement, Schlenck’s preference for using limited scale resources (in this case an eight-note scale which happens to be the octotonic) is refreshing in a compositional world where, often, “anything goes”, and gives a particular focus to the music.

The Rondo second movement also seems to be built on a particular scale (the hexatonic collection in this case), which gives it a jazzy and almost Arabic major/minor oscillation.  Although I still appreciate the consistency of the scales, by the time the end of this movement is reached I am ready for more extended tonal practices; a greater variety of scales.   Thankfully, Schlenck delivers this right from the start of the final movement, which has more tonal and gestural freedom than the other movements.  At moments he returns to the consistency of the first two movements, which is a nice touch in context.

Mina Fan’s String Quartet No. 2 owes much to the Bartok Quartets; indeed, it almost seems a tribute to them in several respects.  According to the liner notes, the piece is “a modern realization of arch form”, certainly a favorite of Bartok’s.  There are many textural nods to the Quartets, though perhaps it is the folksong of her native China that she is incorporating rather than the Hungarian folk melodies of Bartok.  An eminently listenable work, it shows her a composer of much promise in her mastery of quartet writing as learned from Bartok and Prokofiev.

Larry Hoffman’s String Quartet No. 2, by contrast, is entirely American, specifically an excursion into the Blues. It contrasts  straightforward blues writing–which would be playable by a cafe orchestra or blues pianist—with passages reminiscent of Roy Harris (a composer not directly influenced by but who influenced jazz).  The whole is surprisingly unified, which shows just how much serious American composition over the years has been influenced by jazz (and the other way around).

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

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