Mozart, Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, “Stadler”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, “Stadler”, 1789

Wolfgang Amadeus MozartMozart wrote a number of chamber works for strings and a wind instrument, including the flute, oboe, horn and clarinet. In each case, he managed to showcase the idiomatic character of the featured guest while setting it naturally within a chamber context for a balanced, blended ensemble. Often inspired to write for a particular musician, Mozart twice wrote a chamber work featuring the clarinet for his friend Anton Stadler: first, the Kegelstatt trio and three years later, in 1789, the exquisite Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581, which Mozart himself subtitled “Stadler’s Quintet.” In a single work, Mozart combines his gifts for three genres in which he was supreme: opera, the concerto, and the string quartet. Nearly all of Mozart’s mature instrumental music “sings” with a vocal character while it develops through a sure sense of drama into a compelling, wordless narrative. With the skillful handling of the most fluid chamber textures, Mozart conjures solo arias, duets, dances and choruses from an ample cast of five. Mozart single-handedly elevated the concerto to a high plane of dramatic art and his chamber works with highlighted soloist tend to arrange themselves as intimate concerti. The strings are the tutti ensemble that prepares for the entrance of the soloist, artfully accompanies its moments in the spotlight and graciously entertains with skill during its absence. With clarinet as operatic diva and concerto soloist, the string quartet emerges as the remaining embedded ensemble with significant portions of the music devoted to its own self-sufficient art. Yet, despite these polarized tendencies throughout the quintet, Mozart still crafts a masterfully integrated chamber work for equal partners where the clarinet blends and the individual strings occasionally sing alone from center stage.

The quintet opens with a moderately paced sonata whose sectional exposition is clearly articulated by no less than three fully lyrical themes in which the strings coax the clarinet to comment, elaborate and finally sing. The first violin and especially the cello emerge as additional solo characters from the airy textures that allow much light shine through. The very brief development is given primarily to the rich strands of the string quartet while the reprise brings the opening material to greater fruition with the exquisitely classical elaborations that Mozart so frequently lavishes upon the attentive listener. It all wraps up with the five voices as ribbons tying a rococo bow with a streamer of laughing triplets from the clarinet falling into the last echo of the opening theme, now fitted with a simple, final cadence.

Late 18th Century ClarinetsThe Larghetto is the heart of the piece, a wistful nocturne for the mellow, indescribable humanity of the clarinet. Beginning as a touching aria, it becomes a duet as the violin joins like a lover trying to gently soothe her troubled counterpart. At first enlivened, the clarinet sings more deeply of its longing until miraculously transcending into upward scales of magical grace made especially effervescent by the atmospheric sheen of muted strings. Here is the Mozart of ineffably delicate beauty glowing with an aura that feels to be no less than divinely inspired. Was it this movement alone that inspired a rich tradition of clarinet quintets that extend from Weber to Brahms to Paul Schoenfeld in the present day?

The Menuetto changes the scene from a starlit serenade to a glittering society dance where the rustic directness of the clarinet happily strides into an unlikely contradance with the urbane, refined and possibly aloof cadre of aristocratic strings. To accommodate the rich partitioning of the quintet, Mozart supplies two trios, one for the slightly serious elegance of the string quartet and another for the simple song of clarinet that succeeds in charming a wayward violin into a ländler for two.

Mozart explores every last possible set of relationships in this little chamber opera for five with a theme and variations finale. Through a variety of scenes, the characters talk, laugh, lament and dance with ever shifting moods and alliances while recalling the same story from a different angle each time. The third variation is remarkable for giving the lead to a melancholy viola while consigning the dark lower register of the clarinet to replace the missing voice within the quartet texture. Throughout, the concerto tendencies show again most noticeably when the clarinet’s absence builds the anticipation of its next appearance as well as with the give and take between strings and clarinet. The best part of a variation set is often the penultimate variation (or two) whose change of mode or tempo (or both) builds an unresolved tension that only the last variation can release. Mozart sets this expectation in motion first by changing to a minor key, a foil predicting the return to an even grander mirth. He delays the resolution and increases the tension by following with a variation at a much slower tempo: restrained by the mock poise of courtly manner, teasing with pregnant pauses and halting with the languid gesture of a question mark in the full calligraphy of a brief clarinet cadenza. Release springs to life at last with a lively recall of the opening theme in its original guise and a little coda to bring the whole ensemble back on stage together for a final bow.

© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.

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