I've attended many Mozart Society concerts and have always been impressed by the standard of the performers. Venues have varied, usually School Halls, and I vividly recall one when the heating, after a typical Sydney southerly blast, was inadequate to the point of discomfort. It was refreshing therefore to attend Chatswood Concourse which I gather will be the Society's permanent venue. The programme was intriguing and had a common theme, namely the word “joke” which could apply to all three pieces.

© Flinders Quartet
© Flinders Quartet

First, Mozart's String Quartet in G major K387, the first of the Haydn Quartets which is unusual for such an early work in having the normal order of the slow and minuet movements reversed. The familiar lilting first theme attracted attention and the beautiful second subject even more so. The minuet and trio were played with great sensitivity while the slow movement's four themes we're easily distinguished. The last movement is perhaps the best known, with its fugue-like structure and intertwining themes being compared to the finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony. The movement ends with loud chords followed by two quiet bars, but premature applause drowned this despite the Joke alert!

It's easy to see why, after listening to these quartets, Haydn made his famous remark about Mozart being the best composer known to him. What is more difficult is to find the derivation of the nickname "Spring" which is often applied to this work or its relevance.

Haydn's E flat major quartet Op.33 no. 2 is more justifiably nicknamed "The Joke". Composed in 1781, it is contemporaneous with Mozart's quartet and I would like to know which composer first had the idea of transposing the central movements. Perhaps they discussed it as they almost certainly met and possibly played in a quartet together. The jumpy first movement with a stormy middle section is followed by a Scherzo based on the Austrian Schuhplatter dance, while the Trio features crude glissandi by the first violin supposedly in imitation of a village fiddler (omens of a Pastoral Beethoven here!).

The following Largo is appropriately serious, an introduction by the lower strings being followed by short turbulent episodes. The last movement is a Rondo which proceeds apace until the main theme returns followed by long breaks and a shortened version of the main phrase. Here,the audience appreciated the joke and applauded appropriately.

Beethoven's Quartet Op.18 no. 4 is also an unusual work in a number of ways being the last of the group to be completed and the only one in a minor key. Immediately the dramatic mood that C minor brings to Beethoven is apparent while soon a run of ten jagged chords signals a modulation to E flat major. This feature recurs until, after a much quieter version of the chords, the minor prevails through the recapitulation to the finish. The second movement is labelled Scherzo but there is no hint of a joke here and the movement resembles a minuet in C major. The Minuet, however, returns to the minor (each movement is in C) and is faster with a tremolo figure in the first violin over echoes by the other strings. The trio features rapid triplets in the first violin while the reprise of the minuet is indicated to be played faster than initially. The Finale is a Gypsy Rondo with contrasting serene and vigorous episodes. Finally,the tempo increases to Prestissimo followed by two four note major arpeggios followed by an emphatic reassertion of the minor in three repeated chords. I wonder if Beethoven would have welcomed  the soubriquet “Joke” to this ending but it is certainly revolutionary.

I could hardly praise the playing of the Flinders Quartet more highly: accurate and perceptive with excellent timing and coordination. The first violinist, Stephen Chen, performed with a vivacity which was reflected by the other artists who clearly enjoyed the performance as much as the audience.