Mozart / Mendelssohn – The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

More of the music of Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame

The Mozart side of this Red Seal pressing from 1968 sounds AMAZING. I have never heard better staging for a chamber work of this kind. All five instruments are so clearly set apart from each other and tonally correct (for the most part) that it is nothing less than fascinating to be able to follow each instrument as it weaves its way through the score. If you’ve suffered through the horrendously sour and screechy recordings Heifetz and Piatigorsky are known for in audiophile circles — LDS 2513 and LDS 6159, you will be glad to know that this side one sounds NOTHING like them.   

(Reversing your polarity on LDS 6159 helps but it can’t fix sound that’s that bad.)

Side one is, as we say, wonderfully clear and transparent. It does not have as much warmth and fullness as one might want, so for those of you who have plenty of tubey magic to bring to the recordings you play, this may just be the best chamber work you have ever heard. It is a touch hot in the 3-4k region but this is a minor quibble. Tons of recordings from this era are, including most RCAs and Mercuries; Deccas and Londons less so.

Side Two Sucks

Side two of this pressing is smeary, boxy and opaque, a sound we come across quite often when playing the scores of Golden Age classical recordings we audition every month here at Better Records.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Mozart – Quintette in C

Side Two

Mendelssohn – Trio No. 2 in C Minor

Mozart

All five of Mozart’s numbered string quintets are composed for a combination of two violins, two violas, and cello, an unusual disposition that varies from the more customary quintet that calls for viola and two cellos (the ensemble used, for example, by Boccherini and Schubert). Mozart’s choice of two violas undoubtedly reflects his great love for the instrument, and its use profoundly affects the color and structure of all his string quintets.

The C major Quintet is the first of a pair completed in the spring of 1787. Why Mozart should have returned to the genre fourteen years after his previous effort, the Quintet in B flat major, K. 174, is unclear. Having recently explored the potential of the string quartet in the six works dedicated to Haydn and the “Hoffmeister” Quartet, K. 499 (1786), perhaps he felt the need to seek a new challenge in the chamber medium. Mozart entered the Quintet into his thematic catalog on April 19, 1787, shortly after returning to Vienna from Prague, where the triumphant reception of Le nozze di Figaro had resulted in a commission for a new opera. He likely worked on the Quintet while waiting to receive the libretto for Don Giovanni from his collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte.

There seems to be little doubt that Mozart planned the C major Quintet and its sucessor, the Quintet in G minor, K. 516 as a contrasting pair, in much the same manner as the Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41 (interestingly, also in G minor and C major, respectively). Indeed, in its elevated character, breadth, and scope, the C major Quintet inhabits a world very close to that of the “Jupiter” Symphony.

The opening Allegro of the Quintet is one of Mozart’s boldest and most substantial conceptions, a truly noble movement that includes a development section of exceptional richness and diversity. The Minuet, more customarily the third movement in such works, follows; its nearly symphonic construction is far removed from a typical stylized dance. The Andante flows with a heart-easing tranquility that is hardly dissipated by the glowing harmonies of the finale, a movement of deceptive simplicity that was once characterized by Mozart’s biographer Alfred Einstein as “godlike and childlike.”

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Mendelssohn Trio

Completed and published in 1845, the Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66, is invariably compared to its older sibling, the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, written six years earlier. The later work is more complex, employing themes that are less song-like and more amenable to intense development. Also, the Trio in C minor is a more detailed work that rewards repeated listening. Mendelssohn dedicated the Piano Trio in C minor to Louis Spohr (1784-1859), who played through the piece with the composer at least once.

Marked Allegro energico e fuoco, the first movement begins with a segmented theme consisting of rising and falling arpeggios and scales. Its generic components make the theme very flexible and well suited to sonata form and to contrapuntal elaboration, which occurs frequently in the movement. The secondary theme is much more broad than the first and makes an important appearance in the coda. Harmonically, the Allegro is subdued and dark, with Mendelssohn progressing from C minor through G flat major, C flat major, and A flat minor, with occasional returns to C minor to remind us of the primary key.

Mendelssohn cast the second movement, Andante espressivo, in the relative major, E flat. Its subdued main theme, played first in block chords in the piano, sets the tone for the whole movement.

The G minor Scherzo resembles that of Mendelssohn’s Octet, Op. 20, but is less refined. Formally, it is unusual. The Scherzo, a frenetic, although quiet, bundle of energy in G minor, gives way to a lyrical Trio in G major. After the Trio has run its course, a significantly shortened reprise of the Trio forms a link to the return of the Scherzo, which is itself abbreviated.

C minor reappears at the beginning of the Finale, marked Allegro appassionato and in 6/8 meter. (Brahms would later quote the main theme in the Scherzo of his Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5.) The short, modular theme, first stated in the cello, lends itself to Beethovenian development. In the midst of the development section, Mendelssohn inserts the theme of a chorale, “Vor deinen Thron,” presented almost literally and mingled with statements of the first theme. Mendelssohn was perhaps following the example of Beethoven, who uses a chorale in his Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 2, No. 3, to impart a sense of profundity. In the case of Mendelssohn, we are left to ponder the reason for this incongruous addition. When this chorale tune returns in the coda, it is given massive, symphonic treatment and is completely detached from the first theme.

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