Music review: 4 Mozart quartets prove just right

After rousing applause and a standing ovation Thursday night for Daniel Berkenblit, who is retiring

After rousing applause and a standing ovation Thursday night for Daniel Berkenblit, who is retiring at the end of this season as organizer for the International Festival of Chamber Music at Union College’s Memorial Chapel, cellist Sophie Shao and three of her friends took the stage.

The program was four of Mozart’s string quartets. One might think this would be overkill or too much of a good thing, depending on how much of a chamber music fan they are, but not to worry. Mozart’s fertile imagination and genius took care of everything.

Shao, violinists Lily Francis and Arnaud Sussmann and violist Paul Neubauer — award winners all — played with subtle finesse and a supreme mastery. Considering that Shao put the group together specifically for this concert just goes to prove that really good musicians are quick studies.

Although the music was the focus, what was interesting as a side issue was how different the group sounded depending on whether Francis or Sussmann was playing first violin. The violinists each played first on two quartets.

Sussmann was up first in the Quartet No. 7 in E-flat Major, composed when Mozart was 17 and just starting to explore the genre. In only three rather short movements, the first violinist got to play the pretty melodies that the other three supported. Yet, even in this arrangement, Mozart made their parts interweave with interesting harmonies. The mood was bright and vivacious.

Sussmann provided strong leadership with a big, rich tone and a vibrant energy. Pacing, pitch, phrasing and ensemble were all excellent.

Francis took over for Quartet No. 18 in A Major, the fifth of the sixth quartets dedicated to Haydn when Mozart was 29. By then, Mozart knew what he wanted within context and produced greater complexity, counterpoint, a wide range of dynamics, chromaticism and theme and variations style. Francis set a refined manner and gave much subtlety to her nuances and phrase endings.

She also headed up the Quartet No. 15 in D minor, the second of the same six quartets but written two years earlier. This is a marvelous quartet with exquisite romantic melodies that presage the eras to come. Mozart moved between major and minor tonalities, which created a darker sensibility as an undercurrent. Some sections were very edged and intense but quickly melded to frothy and lighthearted. The players were seamless and inspired.

Sussmann took over for the Quartet No. 23 in F Major, the third quartet dedicated in 1790 to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, for whom, because he was an amateur cellist, Mozart wrote a more important part. Sussmann’s exuberant style gave the work a sense of portent and drive that made the contrasts of delicacy to drama more dynamic and edgier. And Mozart’s flow of melody crossed even the bars of silence.

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