MUSIC / Restoration work: Nicholas Williams on a Mozartian masterpiece restored to its rightful register and a modern commission with Mozartian echoes

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The Independent Culture
THERE is a minor aristocracy among clarinet quintets. Top of the tree are the works by Mozart and Brahms, with essays by Reger and Crusell occupying an honourable second rank. Quintets by modern masters such as Simpson and Birtwistle occupy an interesting third division. But the Mozart always comes first, and that despite the fact that we have no record of its original form, written for that beautiful yet neglected instrument, the basset horn.

At the Blackheath Concert Halls on Sunday night Mark van de Wiel and members of the Endymion Ensemble gave a rare opportunity to hear how it might have sounded. Compositionally, the enigma concerns the instrument's tenor register, which extends seriously lower than that of the modern clarinet family; and the piece is indeed full of the sonorous character that is typical of this instrument throughout its range. The string parts remain the same, but crucial dramatic points are involved; not least the opening, a basset horn arpeggio rising from the very depths of the instrument's soul. On this hearing, it seems that Wiel got it about right in judging where the extra notes should be.

He also got it right technically, achieving a finely judged performance that overcame both the instrument's propensity to disappear within the general sound of the ensemble, and the hall's tubby acoustics - the propensity to swaddle every sound in an engulfing mezzo forte. Notable moments, chiefly in the slow movement but also in the minuet, occurred where the ear mistook the basset horn timbre for viola or cello, only to find it emerging through the texture and leading to the next phase of the music. The smoky, clouded sound was appealing. How might Janacek or Strauss have responded to the medium?

The evening had started thoughtfully on a different tack, with two of Mozart's arrangements of preludes and fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier, given steady readings by the four Endymion players led by violinist Krysia Osostowicz. The theme of creative minds in interaction was taken up by the evening's world premiere, Sadie Harrison's Quintet for a Winter Solstice, a New Macnaghten commission for clarinet and strings funded by the London Arts Board. The dialogue here was between Harrison's jagged, fraught musical language and the first movement of Mozart's Dissonance quartet. Not much of the quartet survives audibly in the new piece; themes, contours and morphology were to be construed in terms of analogy rather than parallels. Thus the famous instability of Mozart's opening - precarious discord smoothed out by tonality - became a general pattern for complex string chorales to unravel themselves into textures of relative simplicity and ease; a second section of clarinet solos and more rhythmic versions of the chorales matched the rhythmic development of the Mozart quartet. The short, final part shadowed the enriched recapitulation of K465, becoming fast and virtuosic, at one point even breaking into a jig.

All these stages were clear in the music, despite a melodic surface that remained at times elusive. An emphatic prefatory figure heralding each section was a useful signpost.

The overall impression was of slowly gathering energy, but through moment-to-moment patterns of climax and relaxation rather than broad musical paragraphs given substance by generous infills of sound. Endymion were on top form, clearly operating well in the security of their current Blackheath residency.

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