The Austrian string quartet “The Hagen Quartet” and the German classical clarinetist Sabine Meyer perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581. Although originally written for basset clarinet, the work is almost always played on a clarinet in A (as in the video below) or B-flat.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581, is one of the most sublime chamber music pieces ever written for the clarinet. Composed in 1789 for his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler, this work is characterized by its melodious themes, brilliant instrument interplay, and meticulous structuring.
The quintet is scored for a clarinet, two violins, a viola, and a cello. One of the distinguishing features of this work is the balance Mozart achieved between the clarinet and the string instruments. Instead of relegating the clarinet to a mere accompanying role, Mozart gave it a prominent voice, often placing it in the spotlight for some of the most expressive melodies.
Mozart’s relationship with Stadler undoubtedly influenced the character of the piece. Stadler was known for his virtuosity, and Mozart was familiar with the nuances of his playing. This might be one of the reasons why the quintet explores the full range and capabilities of the clarinet, from its mellow, lower registers to its bright, shimmering highs. The warmth of the clarinet’s timbre blends seamlessly with the strings, creating moments of touching beauty.
Harmonically, Mozart’s genius shines through in the Clarinet Quintet. There’s a fluidity in the way the composer moves between major and minor keys, between moments of joy and introspection. The thematic material, while distinctly classical in form, contains hints of the expressive emotional depth that would be fully realized in the Romantic era.
The work, as a whole, is a testament to Mozart’s profound understanding of instrumental color and his ability to draw out the unique character of each instrument while maintaining a cohesive ensemble sound. It’s a masterpiece that exemplifies the timeless beauty of chamber music.
Mozart’s clarinet quintet consists of four movements:
- Allegro, 2/2
- Larghetto, 3/4 in D major
- Menuetto – Trio I – Trio II, 3/4 (Trio I in A minor)
- Allegretto con Variazioni, 2/2
The first movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581, is marked “Allegro.” It’s constructed in a sonata-allegro form, a common structure for first movements in the Classical period, characterized by its exposition, development, and recapitulation sections.
From the onset, the movement captivates with a gentle, singing quality. The clarinet introduces the first theme, a lyrical and flowing melody that sets the mood for the entire movement. This theme is characterized by its gracefulness, showcasing the clarinet’s ability to produce long, expressive lines.
The strings soon join, echoing and expanding upon the clarinet’s theme. This interplay between the clarinet and strings is one of the quintessential elements of this movement. As the piece progresses, secondary themes emerge, further enriching the melodic tapestry.
In the development section, Mozart ingeniously manipulates and transforms the thematic material, exploring different keys and showcasing his harmonic prowess. This section witnesses a heightened sense of drama and complexity, with the clarinet and strings weaving intricate dialogues and responding to each other’s musical ideas.
The recapitulation brings a return to the initial themes but with some variation and adaptation. True to the sonata-allegro form, this section offers a familiar comfort, reminding listeners of the movement’s opening moments. The clarinet remains central to the narrative, carrying the primary melodies and interacting beautifully with the string ensemble.
Throughout the movement, Mozart ensures that the clarinet remains at the forefront, highlighting its lyrical capabilities and color. However, the strings are not mere accompanists; they are equal partners in this musical conversation. The interplay between the instruments, the fluid thematic development, and Mozart’s harmonic brilliance together create a captivating and eloquent opening movement.
The second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581, is labeled “Larghetto,” indicative of its slow and expansive nature. This movement is particularly cherished for its deep lyrical beauty and emotive expression.
The “Larghetto” is akin to a serene and heartfelt song. It begins with the strings setting a tender and introspective mood, soon followed by the clarinet that enters with a smooth, song-like melody, showcasing its mellow and rich lower register. This theme, in the hands of the clarinet, conveys a sense of longing and warmth.
The strings and clarinet converse throughout this movement, exchanging themes and harmonizing in a manner that often feels like a gentle embrace. The ensemble is in perfect balance, with the clarinet sometimes leading the narrative and at other times blending with the strings to produce moments of sheer tonal beauty.
Harmonically, the movement flows with Mozart’s signature elegance. There are moments of tension and release, as the composer ventures into distant keys before returning to more familiar ground, enhancing the overall emotional impact.
The “Larghetto” stands out for its intimate character. It is like a private confession or a love letter set to music. The delicate interplay between the clarinet and strings, the profound emotional depth, and the sheer beauty of the melodies all contribute to its reputation as one of the most exquisite slow movements in the chamber music repertoire. The movement provides a soulful contrast to the vivacity of the first movement, offering listeners a moment of introspection and emotional depth.
The third movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581, is designated “Menuetto.” A minuet is a dance form that was customary in symphonies, sonatas, and other larger works of the Classical period. However, Mozart’s minuets often transcend the simple dance character, becoming more intricate and expressive.
The “Menuetto” of the Clarinet Quintet exemplifies this transformative quality. It is stately and elegant, yet filled with nuance. The structure of the movement is a traditional ABA or ternary form, with the minuet being the A section and the trio, a contrasting middle section, being the B section.
In the A section or the minuet proper, the clarinet and strings present a balanced and graceful dance theme. The rhythmic pulse is unmistakable, evoking the feeling of the dance. But there’s also a touch of sophistication in how Mozart treats the theme, with intricate contrapuntal interactions between the clarinet and strings.
The B section, or the trio, provides a contrast. It tends to be lighter in texture and offers a change in mood. In this quintet, the trio section gives the spotlight to the strings, especially the first violin, which introduces a new, lilting theme. The clarinet provides a complementary voice, weaving in and out of the strings’ lines.
After the trio, the minuet theme returns, concluding the movement in its elegant and poised character. Overall, the “Menuetto” serves as a delightful interlude in the quintet, a dance-inflected palette cleanser between the deeply expressive second movement and the lively finale that follows.
4. Allegretto con Variazioni
The finale of Mozart’s clarinet quintet is marked “Allegretto con Variazioni,” which translates to “Somewhat quickly, with variations.” As the marking suggests, this movement is built around a theme followed by a series of variations, a form Mozart often employed to demonstrate both compositional ingenuity and the virtuosity of the performers.
The movement opens with a theme presented by the strings. It’s a bright, catchy melody that sets the stage for the forthcoming variations. Each variation then takes this theme and modifies it, showcasing different facets of the ensemble’s capabilities and colors.
The clarinet, naturally, is given ample opportunity to shine throughout these variations. Its versatility is on full display: from rapid passages to lyrical flourishes, from its chalumeau (low) register to its clarion (upper) tones. The string instruments aren’t left behind either; they too get their moments in the spotlight, adding depth and contrast to each variation.
There’s a wonderful interplay between the ensemble members throughout this movement. The variations allow for individual instruments to step forward and demonstrate their unique voices, but there’s always a sense of cohesion and ensemble unity.
Toward the end, Mozart introduces a more introspective minor variation which adds depth and contrast to the movement. However, this more somber mood is temporary, as the piece concludes with a lively and jubilant final variation that wraps up the entire quintet in a spirited and uplifting manner.
This movement, with its playful variations and bright character, provides a fitting conclusion to the quintet, leaving the listener in a state of admiration for both Mozart’s compositional genius and the profound capabilities of the clarinet within a chamber setting.
The Hagen Quartet
The Hagen String Quartet is one of the leading string quartets of its native Austria, known for its wide-ranging repertoire and its long association with Gidon Kremer and the Lockenhaus Festival.
The four original members of the Quartet were all members of the same family: Lukas, Angelika, Veronika, and Clemens Hagen of Salzburg, Austria. As members of a family of musicians, they played together in an ensemble regularly. They stepped forward as aspiring professional quartet players around 1980.
Previously, they had studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Music Academies (Muskhoschschule) of both Basle, Switzerland, and Hanover, Germany, and the University of Cincinnati. Their main teachers were Hatto Beyerle, Heinrich Schiff, and Walter Levin, and at Cincinnati, they studied with the LaSalle Quartet.
They had an opportunity to meet the important early music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was interested back then in earlier repertoire, and with Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, one of the world’s leading exponents of newer music and unusual repertory. This resulted in the Hagen String Quartet’s breadth of repertory, which extends from before Bach to the latest works of Witold Lutoslawski and György Ligeti.
Kremer invited the Hagens to participate in the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival where, in 1981, they won both the Jury Prize and the Audience Prize. In 1982 they won first prize at the Portsmouth String Quartet Competition. A part of this prize was a debut at London’s prime chamber music and recital venue Wigmore Hall, which was a great success.
The quartet continued winning prizes, taking firsts at Evian, Bordeaux, and Banff. Soon their hometown invited them to perform at the Salzburg Festival and they became part of the busy musical scene in the city, participating regularly in the Festival, the Mozart-Week celebrations, and in regular concert series held in Salzburg. They also continue as regular participants in the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festivals.
The Hagen String Quartet became an exclusive act with Deutsche Grammophon, which has issued a series of recordings of their performances at Lockenhaus as well as many others.
The Quartet often performs with leading artists of the day, including pianists Paul Gulda and Oleg Maisenberg, violist Gerard Causée, and their teacher cellist Heinrich Schiff.
Angelika Hagen retired from the quartet and was replaced as second violinist by Rainer Schmidt in 1987.
Sabine Meyer, born 30 March 1959, in Crailsheim (Baden-Württemberg – Germany), is a German classical clarinetist.
Meyer began playing the clarinet at an early age. Her first teacher was her father, also a clarinetist. She studied with Otto Hermann in Stuttgart and then with Hans Deinzer at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hannover, along with her brother, clarinetist Wolfgang Meyer, and now-husband, clarinetist Reiner Wehle, who played later in the Munich Philharmonic.
She began her career as a member of the Bayerische Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, where her appointment as one of the orchestra’s first female members caused controversy. Herbert von Karajan, the orchestra’s music director, hired Meyer in September 1982, but the players voted against her at the conclusion of her probation period by a vote of 73 to 4. The orchestra insisted the reason was that her tone did not blend with the other members of the section, but other observers, including Karajan, believed that the true reason was her gender. In 1983, after nine months, Meyer left the orchestra to become a full-time solo clarinetist.
Orchestras with which she has performed include the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tokyo NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic.
In addition, she performs regularly with the Radio Symphony Orchestras in Vienna, Basel, Warsaw, Prague, Turin, Budapest, Brussels, and Copenhagen and with major orchestras in Spain, Italy, Holland, Japan, and Switzerland.
In addition to her work as a soloist, Sabine Meyer is a committed player of chamber music and plays all styles of classical music. She finds great value in continued long-term collaboration with other musicians. She is a member of the Trio di Clarone along with her brother and husband who have recorded many CDs. In late 2006 she undertook a short tour with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. A particularly notable performance in this tour was at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on 5 December. Meyer and her wind quintet have worked as members of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with Claudio Abbado.
By the 1990s, she had become a prominent solo clarinetist, recording regularly and exclusively for the EMI label. These include a CD of French music for Clarinet and Piano with Oleg Maisenberg, entitled French Recital. A disc of clarinet concertos by Ludwig Spohr and Franz Krommer was released in July 2007, for which she collaborated with her student Julian Bliss.
Meyer and her husband have two children and share a professorship at the Musikhochschule Lübeck, in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, and live in Lübeck.
- Clarinet Quintet (Mozart) on Wikipedia
- The Hagen Quartet Biography by Joseph Stevenson on AllMusic.com
- Hagen Quartet on Wikipedia
- Sabine Meyer on Wikipedia
- Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 [Pierre-Laurent Aimard] - September 19, 2023
- Beethoven: Moonlight Sonata (Full) [Eric Zivian, fortepiano] - September 19, 2023
- Pavarotti sings Non Ti Scordar di Me at the Madison Square Garden, New York  - September 17, 2023