Chamber music audiences hear a lot of string quartets, not only because many prominent composers wrote them but because there are many modern ensembles around in the configuration — two violins, one viola and one cello — to play them.
String quintets are much less commonly programmed, in part because they require that you add an extra viola — or in Schubert’s case an extra cello — to the standard quartet. And finding that extra player can be a bit of a problem.
But the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth made the leap anyway, programming not one but two string quintets — with one quartet as a sort of afterthought — in Saturday afternoon’s concert in the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
The performers were the Arianna String Quartet — violinists John McGrosso and Julia Sakharova, violist Joanna Mendoza and cellist Kurt Baldwin — with Richard Young playing the extra viola.
They proved to be an impressive crew (society regulars already expected that of Young, who’s been on their programs before), with an impressive list of compositions.
The biggest surprise for me was the one movement by Anton Webern, who was a prominent member of the so-called Second Viennese School of musical composition, notorious for its experiments in atonality.
Saturday’s work was labeled Langsamer Satz, which means simply “slow movement” in English. It’s for string quartet and differs from Webern’s more commonly hyperbrief works in its conventional length and lyrical, tonal style. In fact, it’s really quite lovely and should not repel even an avid hater of modern music. Of course, it was written in Webern’s early years, before he met Schönberg.
The two quintets on the program were by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Beethoven’s (in C, Opus 29) was quick but gentle in its first two movements, and brisk but not aggressive in its last two. it clearly stands as a bridge from the composer’s youth to his later heroic style. Mendelssohn’s Quintet No. 2 was appealing in its liveliness (at times it seemed almost orchestral) and moving in its lovely slow movement.
Apropos of nothing, Saturday’s printed program contained a quote demonstrating Richard Strauss’ wit. His advice to young conductors: “Never look at the trombones. You’ll only encourage them.”