MOZART:  String Quintet in C Major, K. 515; String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516 – Fine Arts Quartet/ J. Dupouy, viola – Lodia LO-CD 7703, 65:58 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

The Fine Arts Quartet, now celebrating its 65th anniversary, remains one of the most distinguished ensembles in chamber music today, with an illustrious history of performing success and an extensive recording legacy. Founded in Chicago in 1946, and based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1963, the quartet is one of the elite few to have recorded and toured internationally for over half a century. Three of the Quartet’s current artists, violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, and cellist Wolfgang Laufer, have now been performing together for nearly 30 years.

The two Mozart quintets inscribed by the Fine Arts Quartet and viola player J. Dupouy date from 1986. Each of the quintets testifies to Mozart’s passionate but troubled state of mind in 1787, when the death of Count Hatzfeld grieved Mozart, and he simultaneously had begun work on the dark drama giocoso, Don Giovanni. For both works, Mozart’s scoring for the violoncello stands out as particularly expressive, perhaps the result of Mozart’s familiarity with Boccherini’s efforts in the same medium. The breadth of vision of the C Major Quintet, K. 515 has perpetually elicited comparisons with the Jupiter Symphony in the same key. The playing of the Fine Arts Quartet at the St. Barnabas Church, London strikes us especially alert, moving from the broad proportions of the first movement Allegro, a movement that proffers the longest sonata-form exposition in music prior to the Beethoven Ninth.

The luxurious tone of the extra viola comes to the fore in the Andante, in which violin Evans and viola Dupouy engage in a series of florid duets, with Laufer’s cello equally resonant. In the manner of a lyrical sonatina, the movement moves with caressed affection. Violin and violas engage in symphonic antiphons for the ensuing Menuetto – Allegretto.  The Trio section, with its chromatic leaps and turns of phrase has a poignancy and cello-based texture that proves captivating.  The final Allegro has been described as a dance “on the edge of an abyss,” a sonata-rondo quite deft at swelling into symphonic proportions. Ralph Evans’ concertante playing becomes quite wild as well as inflamed, contributing to the remark that vitality rather than joy reigns in this dance that knows how closely sorrow lies at hand.

For passionate density of expression, few pieces in the Mozart canon compete with the G Minor Quintet, akin to the symphony in the same key.  Mozart seems to have equated the dark G Minor key with tension and personal anguish, here building the opening Allegro on three themes, bestowing a particularly grim hue to the extra viola and the cello. Despite the heartache of the music, the Fine Arts ensemble bestows a firm pulse and elastic current simultaneously upon the often tragic figures that leap up in an effort to gain the consolation of B-flat Major.

The traditionally placid and courtly Menuetto movement here takes its cue from the angry Furies of Gluck, in which silence plays as dramatic a role as sound. Playing with mutes, the ensemble realizes the Adagio ma non troppo in E-flat Major.  Unmuted, the first violin intones a lachrymose aria rife with hesitations and long, serpentine phrases. The extended affect of emotional anguish might have transpired indefinitely, but the final Adagio – Allegro dispels much of the gloom in favor of buoyant happiness, going so far as to translate formerly sad tunes in the first movement into  sources for rejoicing. The consummate skill of the composer and the fervor of his interpreters could hardly be improved upon, especially given the expert acoustical arrangement from engineer Tony Faulkner.

—Gary Lemco