Very possibly, the best there is.

MOZART – Complete String Quintets (2015)

Performers: Renaud Capuçon, violin/ Alina Ibragimova, violin/ Gérard Caussé, viola/ Léa Hennino, viola/ Clemens Hagen, cello
Studio: Belvedere [1/8/16] (Distr. by Naxos)
Length: 180 minutes
Video: 1.77:1 for 16:9 screens, color
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, French, Italian
Ratings: Audio: ***** Video: ***** Packaging Design: **½ Overall: ****½

I don’t know many viewers out there who’d watch three straight hours of a quintet playing live on stage. Perhaps the classical music video style is partly to blame. It boasts no creative touches like the average rock video: no surreal scenarios, no creepy animation or psychodramas, no constant ADHD cuts. No, this style is best when artless and transparent. Still, there’s only so much you can do with closeups of performers’ faces and their fingerwork, no matter how skillful they are. That said, these performances of Mozart’s astounding string quintets may be the best I’ve ever seen. Mozart aficionados maintain that his string quartets are not his best work. It’s clear that even famous works like the String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465 (“Dissonance”) don’t approach String Quintets No. 3 in C major, K.515 or No. 4 in G minor, K. 516 in their melodic breadth and puckish invention.

These players, not an official quintet but sort of a super-group culled from some masters casting studio out there, interpret these (and the other four) quintets flawlessly. Virtuoso Renaud Capuçon may play the late Isaac Stern’s violin, but he refrains from the latter’s often tiresome stage theatrics. A true democrat, he never hogs the stage but instead spreads the music among his co-players, the effect of which is to let the music breathe. Unlike Luigi Boccherini, Mozart added his additional viola to give his works wider scope and more ample sound. What he couldn’t have known was that he’d also provided an outline of the romantic ideal. This is evident in the way we hear K.516. From its haunted opening, this minor key work sounds proto-Romantic in a way similar to his Piano Concerto No. 21. Devices like the sudden pianissimo of the dominant theme near the closing of I, and the sweet but forlorn adagio in III add to that feeling. The group provides its own original touches that makes this performance special. For example, they play the adagio (which continues into IV) more slowly than I’ve ever heard. And it works. Gloriously.

In K.593 there is a tenuous opening, then a galloping melody that gradually reigns into a stately prance. Soon the musicians are passing the melody back and forth with gobs of contrast. The piece concludes with a racy and sprightly allegro, spirited on with musical pirouettes. I can almost picture Niccolò Paganini playing it in Vienna 35 years later, just so he could sneakily break a string. The sound is a bit on the bright side, but you get that in live recordings sometimes. After a short while, you no longer notice. What may irk you is the peculiarly designed package. Come on, white lettering on light green? What were they thinking? Some of us are old. If a skeptical friend sees this set on your shelf and asks, “who’d bother filming Mozart’s complete string quintets?”, feel free to respond: “Very possibly the best there is.”

—Peter Bates