- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

In case you hadn’t noticed, Friday was the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Embassy Series and the Austrian Cultural Forum celebrated this festive event in style — complete with a birthday cake — at an evening recital by the Minetti Quartet. The program was performed in the Embassy of Austria’s spacious and acoustically gracious central hall.

A success as a composer and musician but a failure in the art of life, Mozart died at 35 and was buried outside Vienna in an unmarked grave. But his music has lived on, its popularity bolstered further in 1984 with the release of the Milos Forman film of Peter Shaffer’s stage play “Amadeus,” which was loosely based on the composer’s troubled career. Today, if you’re classically inclined, it’s still difficult to get through a week without hearing a snippet of Mozart’s music somewhere.

During Friday’s recital, the Minetti Quartet took the unusual approach of focusing on Mozart’s early compositions, contrasting them to one earlier and one later composition by Franz Schubert, an equally prolific — and impoverished —composer born a few years after Mozart’s untimely death.

An up-and-coming ensemble of young Austrian musicians, the Minetti Quartet settled comfortably into Mozart’s string quartets in G major (KV 156) and C major (KV 157), composed when the prodigy was still in his late teens. Both works are relatively prosaic when compared to Mozart’s more mature works. The writing is straightforward; the first violinist carries most of the melodic load, and the remaining three instrumentalists largely serve as accompanists without getting much opportunity to strut their stuff. Nonetheless, the youthful Mozart clearly had a firm command of form, counterpoint and harmony. As a result, even these early works carry about them a simple and pleasant charm.

The Minetti Quartet performed both compositions in a workmanlike fashion, playing accurately but providing few new insights, save during the breakneck “Presto” finale of the C major where the composer’s humor and their own enthusiasm was able to peek through.

More successful was their performance of Schubert’s Quartet in E-flat major (D 87). Again, a youthful work, recently discovered to have been written when Schubert was only 16, this quartet nonetheless illustrates many of the tricks and complexities that are a hallmark of the composer’s style. The Minetti Quartet again was at its most effective in the work’s brief, rapid “Prestissimo,” which bookends frenetic episodes around a slower central episode that whirls about against a comical drone bass.

The program concluded with a more substantial work, Schubert’s famous Quartet in D minor (D 810), subtitled “Death and the Maiden.” The quartet gets its peculiar name from its long second movement, a complex theme-and-variation format based on the composer’s earlier song, “Der Tod und das Madchen” (D 531), whose narrative pits a young woman against the specter of Death, who has come to take her with him.

This second movement is dramatic and compelling, providing challenging solo opportunities to each of the instrumentalists. The Minetti Quartet made the most of this, passing solo passages back and forth almost in the manner of a jazz ensemble, but with great, Romantic intensity. Cellist Leonhard Roczek, shone most brightly here, relishing his opportunity to stretch out and proclaim as opposed to the earlier pieces where he had largely been relegated to a background role.

The Embassy Series continues its celebration of Mozart’s 250th in March with concerts highlighting solo piano and string quintet compositions. **

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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