Mark Gresham | 26 SEP 2023
A string quintet is a musical composition for five string players. The term also refers to a group of five string players who perform such works.
Compositions by that name exist aplenty. Not so much established ensembles (although the St. George Quintet based in Belgium comes immediately to mind).
Because of this, as a sheer pragmatic matter, a string quintet (as an ensemble of musicians) is typically created as an expansion of an established string quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello), with a fifth string player added as a guest of the quartet. That fifth instrument could be a second cello (e.g., Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956), a contrabass (Dvořák’s Quintet, Op. 77), or, far more rarely, even a third violin (Johann Albrechtsberger’s String Quintet), but composers most frequently call for a second viola, creating a so-called “viola quintet.”
Thus, last Friday’s opening concert of the 2023-24 Candler Concert Series at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts featured three exemplary specimens of “viola quintet” performed by the Balourdet Quartet (violinists Angela Bae and Justin DeFilippis, violist Benjamin Zannoni, and cellist Russell Houston) plus guest violist Jordan Bak.
Launching the program was Mozart’s remarkable String Quartet No. 3 in C major, K.515. Composed in 1787, when the composer was 31 years old (but only four years before his death), the first movement is purportedly the most expansive “sonata-allegro” written before Beethoven. Although there is some minor academic disagreement about the order of the subsequent two movements, the musicians played them in published order, with the effortless “Minuetto” as the second movement followed by the slower, contrasting “Andante,” with its conversational interplay between first violin and first viola. In the final “Allegro” movement, the players skillfully showcased the composer’s capacity for playfulness and wit.
Next came Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 87. Like Mozart, Mendelssohn would die early and wrote this String Quintet in 1845, only two years before his death at age 38. Published posthumously in 1851 by Breitkopf und Härtel, it was his penultimate chamber work and one of his finest, exhibiting breadth and compelling force with a slow and intensely tragic “Adagio e lento” third movement as its gravitational center. But like much of Mendelssohn’s music, agitated energy infused the balance of the work in this performance, particularly the blazing rhythmic rush to the Finale’s end.
After intermission came the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. Brahms intended this quintet to be his final composition, but his autumnal creativity continued, composing various piano pieces and the two Clarinet Sonatas during his remaining seven years of life.
But this Quintet does not come across as the work of an artist who believed his creative days were over. The energized optimism of the outer movements belie that notion, framing the two more introspective inner movements: a lyrically melancholic “Adagio” and a reticent but ultimately serene waltz-like “Un poco allegretto.”
The Balourdets and Bak gave Brahms’ music a compelling performance with a tangibly visceral quality, especially in the Gypsy-influenced final movement, making for a thoroughly enjoyable conclusion to an outstanding musical evening. ■
- Balourdet Quartet: balourdetquartet.com
- Jordan Bak: jordanbak.com
- Schwartz Center for Peforming Arts: schwartz.emory.edu