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Publick Musick explores Mozart's string quintets

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What a difference an instrument can make, if you're Mozart. He wrote chamber music of all kinds, from violin sonatas to wind serenades, but it's often conceded that Mozart was at his best when simply adding a second viola (his favorite string instrument) to the customary string quartet: pride of place in his chamber-music output is given to his string quintets.

Publick Musick seems to agree; for its concerts this weekend -- one last night in Rochester, the other tonight in Pittsford -- the program consists only two of them: the Quintet in E-flat Major and the Quintet in C Major. The five players are Theresa Salomon and Boel Gidholm, violins; Daniel Elyar and Alissa Smith, violas; and Christopher Haritatos, cello.

In Mozart's hands, the extra viola truly ups the composer's ante. The two violas not only give him many opportunities to show off his contrapuntal skills, but they also act as a pivot for all kinds of instrumental combinations: duets, threesomes, solos with a richly textured accompaniment, and on and on. And because of the viola's sweet, slightly veiled tone, the second instrument adds a grace note of melancholy to even the most outgoing moments in the music. In many ways, these two quintets show Mozart at his Mozart-iest.

Mozart's works in E-flat tend to be genial in mood, and his quintet in that key (which opened this Publick Musick program) is a good-natured, tuneful, rather Haydn-esque work. The opening flourish for the violas could easily be transferred to two horns, and the second movement is an engaging and elaborate theme and variations that gives each instrumentalist a piece of the action. In this work the relationships between the instruments are relatively simple: much of the material is presented in a call-and-response between the two violins and the two violas, with the cello as a solid underpinning. (I would understand perfectly if cellists are perhaps not quite as enamored of Mozart's string quintets as violinists or violists are -- apart from occasional invitations to play with the little brothers, the cello is often relegated to the bass line.)

The C Major quintet is almost 40 minutes long -- as long as any of Mozart's symphonies or concertos -- and in a word, it's sublime. It is ambitiously laid out and perfectly proportioned; Mozart's interlacing of the five instrumental parts is particularly engrossing in this work, especially in the first movement. The Andante is mostly taken up with a wonderfully extended operatic duet between the first violin (Theresa Salomon) and the first viola (Alissa Smith, who switched seats with Daniel Elyar from the E-flat Quintet), everyone else taking a back seat.

These Publick Musick performances had some moments of dicey intonation and vinegary violin tone, and what sounded like a missed note or two. But the performers also had the big picture, laying out the structure of the music clearly. And in the many moments where Mozart exploits the relatively low range of the ensemble, as in the trio of the C Major Quintet's minuet, the soft graininess of the period string instruments was downright alluring.

Even more important, these five musicians demonstrated the enlivening give-and-take essential to satisfying chamber music playing. For example, violist Elyar was constantly glancing back and forth at all his fellow musicians, whether taking up a tiny solo line or accompanying them a simple pattern of repeated eighth-notes. A longstanding cliché compares chamber music to lively and intelligent conversation, but like most clichés, it's true, and this relatively short but rich program is as lively and intelligent as they come.

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