Arts & Events

MUSIC REVIEW: The New Esterházy Quartet Plays Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets” at Berkeley’s Hillside Club

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 08, 2014 - 11:52:00 AM

Mozart’s string quartets, at least those from the early 1770s to the early 1780s, owe much of their inspiration to the string quartets of Joseph Haydn, whose Opus 17 quartets of 1771 and six Opus 20 “Sun Quartets” of 1772 were models for Mozart’s early string quartets written between 1771 and 1773. However, for nearly ten years between 1773 and 1782 Mozart wrote no further string quartets. It was the publication in 1781 of Haydn’s six Opus 33 quartets that spurred Mozart to take up again the composition of string quartets. Musicologist Alfred Einstein writes, “the impression made by these quartets of Haydn’s was one of the profoundest Mozart experienced in his artistic life.”  

Haydn himself noted that his Opus 33 quartets were “composed in an entirely new and special manner.” Especially, all four instruments now shared equally in the musical discourse of thematic development. Mozart studied these quartets avidly; and he quickly learned from them. Between 1782 and 1785, Mozart composed six string quartets which, when published in late 1785, bore a dedication to “my dearest friend, Joseph Haydn.” Earlier, in February 1785, Mozart presided over an evening in which at least some of these quartets were performed in the presence of both Haydn and Leopold Mozart. It was on this occasion that Haydn told Mozart’s father: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” 

These six “Haydn Quartets” by Mozart were performed over three evenings, July 30, August 1 & 3, at Berkeley’s Hillside Club by The New Esterházy Quartet. This local group was formed in 2006 and took its name from the Esterházy estate in Hungary where Joseph Haydn lived and worked for nearly three decades. The New Esterházy Quartet is comprised of violinists Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen, all of whom have wide experience performing here and abroad. 

Though I might have preferred that they perform Mozart‘s six “Haydn Quartets“ in chronological order, I’ll defer to their judgment and take up these quartets in the order in which they were performed by The New Esterházy Quartet. On Wednesday, July 30, Mozart’s Quartet No. 18 in A Major, K. 464, opened the series. Chronologically, this is the fifth or next-to-last of Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets.“ The key of A Major is almost always treated by Mozart in a sunny, warmly lyrical fashion; and that is the case here. After an opening Allegro movement, in which counterpoint intensifies Mozart’s economical themes, the following Menuetto and Trio offer yearning figures and a sense of melancholy despite the sunny key of A Major. The third movement, an Andante, receives extended treatment and offers some dissonance. For the final movement, an Allegro non troppo, Mozart offers an enigmatic opening that soon turns decept-ively simple, then becomes ever more complex, and finally leaves the listener in a slightly troubled, pensive mood. Beethoven was so impressed by this movement that he copied it out by hand. In the hands of The New Esterházy Quartet, this A Major Quartet was given an appropriately subtle interpretation. 

After intermission, Mozart’s Quartet No. 17 in B Flat Major, K. 458, was performed. Whereas Kati Kyme played first violin in the A Major Quartet, she now took second chair and Lise Weiss played first violin. This B Flat quartet, nicknamed “The Hunt“ after the 6/8 rhythm of its opening measures, features first movement themes that seem simple yet receive extended development that reaches a climax in a quite extended coda which unexpectedly turns solemn, then bursts suddenly into agitated counterpoint. (Mozart’s interest in counterpoint was developing in the early 1780s through the musical evenings he spent at the Viennese home of his patron Baron von Swieten, where he frequently heard music of Handel and Bach.) An ensuing Menuetto and Trio are liltingly melodious in mood. Then a brief Adagio in E Flat Major strikes an ominous tone, followed by a final Allegro assai that, in this performance, featured first violinist Lisa Weiss in lively melodic themes that brought to a close this opening concert of Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets“ played by The New Esterházy Quartet. 

On Friday, August 1, the second of three concerts devoted to Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets” featured The New Esterházy Quartet performing the first, Quartet No. 14 in G Major, K. 387, and the last, Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465. In the former, it is already clear how much Mozart has learned from Haydn’s Opus 33 quartets about sharing the thematic discourse fairly evenly among all four instruments. In the opening movement, the viola assumes a far greater share than usual in stating – and working out – the principal themes, which are also developed by each instrument in turn. The result is a brilliant opening movement. Then comes a Menuetto where the cello takes the lead. The ensuing Andante cantabile movement opens with a slow ensemble statement of the themes, which are then shared among all four instruments, cul-minating in a moving dialogue between cello and violin. This work’s final movement, marked Molto allegro, begins with a fugue, then plays with the difference between ‘learned’ and ‘galant’ styles, only to take up a second fugal section combining lovely lilting melodies, and, finally, launches into a fugal finale worthy of Mozart’s last symphonic work, the 41st or so-called “Jupiter” Symphony. Further, in yet another subtle tribute to Haydn, this finale closes with a ‘surprise’ ending, comprised of softly played notes that follow a pause after what seems like a brilliant ending.  

In conversation with violist Anthony Martin during intermission, I remarked that some scholars consider the movement we had just heard, the finale of Mozart’s G Major Quartet, the most astounding instrumental movement Mozart ever composed. Martin replied that, for him, this amazing movement foreshadows not only Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony but also the remarkable music Mozart wrote for ever-broadening vocal ensembles in the finale scenes that bring to a close many first acts of his operas. With this observation I couldn’t agree more. 

The second half of this concert was devoted to Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K, 465, nick-named the “Dissonant.” This is perhaps a misnomer, for it refers only to the opening measures of this quartet, which have puzzled listeners for centuries. Here Mozart, writing in a sunny, radiant key of C Major, begins this quartet with a slow, dark, remarkably dissonant opening statement. Why does he do this? Does he wish to show the doubts and insecurities he faced in writing these string quartets? In his dedication to Haydn, Mozart mentions the “long and laborious endeavor” he undertook in writing these quartets. Moreover, study of Mozart’s autograph scores shows that he made many false starts and corrections in composing these works, thereby providing at least an exception to the notion that his music was already fully formed in his head when he sat down to scribble it on paper. 

In any case, after the disturbingly dissonant opening, the C Major Quartet asserts this key’s expected radiant optimism, which then pervades the rest of this work. There is once again sharing of thematic development among all four instruments, first, between cello and viola, then between cello and first violin. In the final movement, the sunny C Major key reigns triumphant as the music offers lively counterpoint for the finale. 

At 4:00 PM on Sunday, August 3, Berkeley’s Hillside Club hosted the third and final concert featuring The New Esterházy Quartet performing Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets.” The original Hillside Club, built in 1906 by Bernard Maybeck, burned down in the 1923 fire. But the current Hillside Club was rebuilt the next year by Maybeck’s partner and brother-in-law John White; and the exceptional acoustics of this intimate hall are perfect for chamber music. The New Esterházy Quartet thrives in this setting; and they bring an easygoing, approachable informality to their appearances here. (I was even able to tease them about their color-coordinated Hawaiian shirts and flowered print blouses on Sunday.)  

Leading off Sunday’s program was Mozart’s Quartet No. 15 in D Minor, K. 421. This work, composed in 1783, is, as Eric Blom notes, “the only mature example in one of the minor keys which Mozart used so sparingly, but nearly always with a force of significance rarely equaled by any of his works or movements in major tonalities.” Indeed, there is a somber, anxious quality that distinguishes this D Minor Quartet from its five companions. (Many years after Mozart’s death, his widow Constanze reported that Mozart wrote this quartet during her pregnancy with their first child, who died two months after birth.) 

The D Minor Quartet opens with the first violin playing an elegiac first subject, followed by a shapely second subject separated by an agitated transition. In the Andante, a rising broken-chord motif generates, in the middle section, two passionate outbursts. The Menuetto features chromatically descending bass figures, which Alfred Einstein terms “fatalistic.” The brief Trio offers the first violin playing a serene melody with pizzicato accompaniment. The final move-ment opens with ensemble statement of a theme that ultimately goes through four variations. This theme is a lilting siciliano, which is developed through curiously fitful gleams of inter-mittent major and minor, culminating in a dialogue between viola and first violin. Whatever may be the reason behind this quartet’s anxiety, it reveals a darker side of Mozart than the otherwise habitually gay mood he exhibits both in society and in most of his compositions.  

After intermission, violinists Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss changed places, with Weiss occupying the first chair and Kyme the second. Incidentally, whereas the other members of The New Esterházy Quartet play authentic 18th century instruments, Lisa Weiss plays a contemporary violin modeled after an 18th century original. The resultant switch in tonality proved a bit disconcerting, for in the opening movement of Mozart’s Quartet No. 16 in E Flat, K. 428, Weiss’s tone sounded slightly shrill in the high notes. However, in the two slow movements, where the yearning chromaticisms have drawn comparison with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the ensemble playing of The New Esterházy Quartet smoothed over any sharpness of tone. The final movement, an Allegro molto, also featured superb ensemble playing that culminated in new counterpoint with an almost humorous touch at the end.  

All in all, I found it infinitely rewarding to hear all six of Mozart’s String Quartets dedicated to Haydn played in three concerts by such a talented group as The New Esterházy Quartet. We are indeed fortunate to have this chamber ensemble as residents in the Bay Area.