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Five the hard way

SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS
GEORGE GELLES, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 9, 2009

HiIn the popular imagination of an earlier age, Mozart and Mendelssohn were yoked. They were portrayed as twin child prodigies, adorable in their personalities, abundant in their gifts, attenuated in vitality by the shortness of their lives (each died at age 36).

These days we’re well beyond such stereotyping. Mozart is rightly revered for music of unparalleled range that remains an endless source of refreshment, and Mendelssohn is regarded as the encapsulation of an era, as a composer whose music, whether incomparable miniatures or expansive oratorios, embodies the qualities of a culturally enlightened mid-19th century. Nonetheless, the combination of the two still makes for potent programming, and Camerata Pacifica paid appropriate tribute at its Hahn Hall concert on Friday evening.

It is hard to imagine that Mozart’s C major String Quintet, K. 515, emerged from troubled waters, but its genesis seems in part inspired by Mozart’s financial straits. Chamber music, underwritten by subscribers, was considered an easy road to dry land, but in this case it wasn’t; the quintet was a difficult sell.

Mozart also added an extra sop. The Quintet favors the cello, with an unusually prominent part, and the cello just happened to be the chosen instrument of the newly crowned Prussian King, Frederick William II, an amateur with aspirations. His Majesty’s interests were not unnoticed. Luigi Boccherini, his favorite musician and now royal court composer, made something of an industry writing works that expanded conventional string quartets with the addition of an extra cello, a part designed for performance by you know who.

Mozart was less obsequious. His C Major Quintet has only one cello, though two violas, but the first thing you notice about the work is its start, a low C in the cello, which is elaborated in an arpeggio that’s the movement’s first theme. The cello stays prominent, batting this theme back and forth with the first violin, and while the extremities of the register claim our attention (the low-pitched cello and high-pitched first violin), the middle three voices (second violin and two violas) create a rich, involved texture that offers contrast and support.

Gorgeous throughout, the Quintet has an exceptional slow movement that suggests an opera scene perhaps more intimate than any that Mozart ever wrote. Spotlighting the first violin and first viola, it reveals a rapport and eventual rapture that bring to mind Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, whose slow movement lets the same instruments work similar magic.

In a fine performance from the organization’s A team — violinists Catherine Leonard and Nurit Pacht, violists Toby Appel and Richard Yongjae O’Neill, and cellist Ani Aznavoorian — shoutouts go to Ms. Aznavoorian and Mr. Appel, both of whom played beautifully. As leader, Ms. Leonard almost always held the reins, but several times, when passagework was particularly intricate, one sensed that control was just barely maintained. It seemed as if the notes were playing her, rather than the other way around.

Mendelssohn composed his B flat Quintet two years before his death, and unlike the most successful of his compositions, the work was left unrevised. But if it doesn’t speak with the freshness of the string quartets, especially of the wonderful works in Opus 44, the Quintet is not without qualities. Its first movement has a theme that says Mendelssohn all over — it’s expansive, vigorous, optimistic and affirmative — and its slow movement is especially poignant. But the Andante Scherzando misses the brio of a true Mendelssohn scherzo and the finale suffers from pages of padding.

Still, violinist Nurit Pacht led a strong performance, playing throughout with stylish virtuosity and investing the slow movement with an appropriate intensity. Her colleague Mr. O’Neill, who was first violist here, was likewise exceptional, not least for his body language. Mobile and expressive, it recalls the playing of the great Joseph DePasquale, long-time first violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose animated deportment was visually enticing and drew one in musically.

The best moment belonged to Ms. Pacht. Just before the finale’s bustle that ends the work, she led the ensemble in a slow passage that ends with a downward jump of a fifth. Not a big deal, admittedly, but it became one when Ms. Pacht colored the passage with portamento, with a slight glide between the notes (G and C) that would become so characteristic in music by Mahler and other late Romantics. With that gesture, artistically apt but rarely heard here, she stylistically linked the Classicist Mendelssohn with the music of the future, and the inference seemed totally telling.