Friday, 20 January 2017

A Viennese Quartet Party: music and memoirs from Mozart's Vienna

A Viennese Quartet Party
A Viennese Quartet Party, Mozart, Haydn, Vanhal, Dittersdorf; Revolutionary Drawing Room, Simon Russell Beale, Omnibus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Michael Kelly's memoirs form the starting point for a charming disc of late 18th century Viennese quartets

In 1774 in Vienna, the composer Stephen Storace gave a party and the entertainment was a string quartet, the players being the composers Mozart, Haydn, Vanhal and Dittersdorf. The tenor Michael Kelly (the first Don Curzio and Basilio in The Marriage of Figaro), was there and describes the occasion in his colourful memoirs.

We don't know much about the occasion, neither the repertoire nor whether the composers played regularly together. But the Revolutionary Drawing Room (Adrian Butterfield, Kathryn Parry, Rachel Stott, and Ruth Alford) use this occasion as the starting point for their delightful Viennese Quartet Party disc on Omnibus Classics. Simon Russell Beale reads extracts from Michael Kelly's memoirs, and the quartet plays a quartet by each of the composers, all dating from roughly the period of the party, Vanhal's Quartet in E flat major (1786), Haydn's Quartet in B flat major, Op.50 no.1 (1787), Mozart's Quartet in C major K465 'The Dissonance' (1785), and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf's Quartet in No. 6 in A major.

The Revolutionary Drawing Room - photo Susan Porter-Thomas
The Revolutionary Drawing Room
photo Susan Porter-Thomas
The layout of the two discs is sensibly planned, Simon Russell Beale reads from Kelly's memoirs giving us a potted history of the singer's early life ending with the description of the quartet part, this is followed by the Vanhal quartet, and each of the other quartets is preceded by further short extracts from Kelly's memoirs. So, for repeated listening it is easy enough to skip the readings if you wish.

Vanhal's quartet, dating from 1786, is in three movements. The opening Allegro con fuoco is engaging, though at over eight minutes it is perhaps too long for the material. The Adagio is graceful with some striking minor moments, and it ends with an elegant yet perky Allegro with some intriguing moments.

Haydn's Quartet in B flat major of 1787 starts with an Allegro full of quiet drama and typical Haydn touches of imagination and wit. With the performance on period instruments we can appreciate the detail and hear the way Haydn write for four fully independent parts. The Adagio is a graceful slow dance, variations in which each instrument gets its moment. The minuet, marked Poco Allegretto is not uncomplex, whilst the finale, Vivace assai is bright and character with darker hints.

Mozart's Quartet in C major, the Dissonance, is the last of his quartets dating from 1782-1785. The slow introduction (the only time Mozart used one in his mature quartets) gives the work its name, full of startling harmonic progressions. The intense bleakness is brought out by the plangency of the vibrato-less tone of the instruments. Yet the following Allegro is lively and characterful, though not without drama in the development. The Revolutionary Drawing Room give playing full of real personality and certainly this is not Mozart-lite. The Andante cantabile is slow and plangent, but full of meaning, whilst the Menuetto uses characterful contrasts along with a dramatic minor mode trioe. The finale is brisk and breezy, a long movement full of incident and drama.

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf's Quartet no. 6 in A major dates from 1789 and is in three movements. The open Moderato is enjoyably characterful with an interesting use of pizzicato and an interesting rhythmic undertow to the material. The minuet is formal and quite rhythmic, but the music still has a strong sense of personality, and there is a perky and unbuttoned trio, with real rumbustious moments. The quartet concludes with a perky finale with a nice sense of wit, particularly at the end.

The Revolutionary Drawing Room was formed in 1990 to explore late 18th and 19th century chamber music on instruments of the period, utilising the beauty of tone and flexibility which comes from playing on gut strings. The name comes from the fact that the drawing room was where the chamber music of the Georgian period was played.

In all the quartets, the Revolutionary Drawing Room gives us playing full of personality and character, and seem to play with real enjoyment. A quartet party indeed.

A Viennese Quartet Party
Johann Baptist Vanhal - Quartet in E flat major
Franz Joseph Haydn - Quartet in B flat major, Op.50 No.1
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Quartet in C major, K465, 'The Dissonance'
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf - Quartet No. 6 in A major
The Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, adapted by Rachel Stott
The Revolutionary Drawing Room (Adrian Butterfield, Kathryn Parry, Rachel Stott, and Ruth Alford)
Simon Russell Beale (reader)
Available from Amazon.

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