Although the notes on the page look as simple as pie, playing Mozart's six quintets for pairs of violins and violas, plus cello, is not for the faint of heart. It was therefore with a sense of tangible excitement that the Cecilia and Afiara Quartets, two of Canada's youngest and finest, demonstrated the courage under fire On May 31 that the composer would have appreciated and the music demands.
Their performance here at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival was a reminder, too, that the judges at the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition, where Cecilia (violinists Min-Jeong Koh and Sarah Nematallah; violist Caitlin Boyle; and cellist Rachel Desoer) took First Prize, must have had a difficult decision, for while the two ensembles share virtuoso chops, impeccable musical instincts and world-class training, they differ markedly in tone color, energy and personality.
On this second night of Mozart Quintets, the Cecilias were up first (in K. 593, with an incomparable Barry Schiffman) and last (in K. 515, with equally incomparable Michael Tree), bookending the Afiaras (violinists Yuri Cho and Valerie Li; violist David Samuel; and cellist Adrian Fung) in K. 516 (with Tree).
K. 593 will inevitably remain a conundrum because of the disputed last movement—although the chromatic version has since its first publication in 1967 become pretty much the standard version heard in concert and on recordings (with the unexpected exception of the one recording on original instruments, by Simon Standage's Salomon Quartet), the Urtext editors agree that only a direct call to Mozart can resolve whether the composer authorized the diatonic version which was printed in his lifetime out of conviction or convenience.
In any case, the Cecilias made a most convincing case as first violinist Koh and her colleagues flashed the chromatic sequences with a fiery spirit whenever one arose.
Throughout K. 593, the Cecilias laid out the music with a wonderful sense of interplay and a host of unforgettable personal touches: affectionate, kittenish appoggiaturas in the slow movement, a heart-stopping F natural five measures before the end of the same movement eerily reminiscent of the sustained high E in the last movement of Smetana's First Quartet, irresistibly sexy at the end of the Trio.
They even almost pulled off Mozart's goofy, Haydn-esque joke at the end of the first movement.
In K. 516, the Afiaras and Tree produced music that seemed to float just above the fingerboard, featuring exquisite poetry from first violinist Cho, who achieved miracles without having to dominate her colleagues. The warmth of the ensemble, their patience at allowing the music to unfold rather than milking it (with apologies to Igudesman and Joo's bovine jokes the night before!), the stunning variety of colors and Fung's great cello playing, all combined in an unbearably sad final statement at the end of the first movement.
Cho got the conflicted, fragmented character of the Minuet just right, then awakened gently the vulnerability of the Trio, adopted an unusually, wonderfully gentle 6/8 for the final Allegro, and totally realized the Quintet's most magical moment, starting at m. 170 of the Allegro, when Mozart tosses in a gorgeous new tune out of the heavenly blue for one time only.
After intermission, the Cecilias and Tree returned to finish with K. 515, which was sublime in its own right, and beautifully paced, but seemed unbalanced, unlike the other five Quintets, by not repeating the first movement's first half (due to time constraints not artistic considerations).
The spirit and generosity of the evening's music making, which took place before a nearly full house that included Quebec's Lieutenant Governor Pierre Duchesne, made clear why the festival had earlier in the week been awarded a First Prize of its own by the Quebec Tourism Board for cultural organizations with budgets $300,000-$1,000,000. The award was richly deserved by a team that worked tirelessly behind the scenes on behalf of the music, the musicians, the audiences, and even the many journalists and critics covering the festival.
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- The Emersons: Reflecting on Change, Pt. I
- Montreal Chamber Music Fest—Brandenburgs a la Wallfisch
- The Montreal Chamber Music Festival—Canada's Instrument Bank Steals the Show
- More from Montreal: The Les Petits Violons School
- Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. V—It's a Wrap!
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. IV, the Results
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. III, The Finals
- Live from Montreal: The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt.II
- Making a Cello, Part II