As long as it's 2006, the Mozart Year has continued with a vengeance at the Orange County Philharmonic Society. This fall, two of its orchestral offerings have been all-Mozart affairs (the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg, Les Violons du Roy); all of its fall chamber music programs have had some Mozart on them.
Yet the Society's final Mozart offering of 2006 -- a complete cycle of the six Viola Quintets with the Brentano String Quartet-plus-one at the Irvine Barclay Theatre -- did stand out amid the sea of bread-and-butter piano and violin concertos, late symphonies, Requiems and such that have been flooding the marketplace. It simply isn't done often, even though the cycle divides neatly and compactly into two programs.
Instead of running through the cycle in chronological order, the Brentanos scrambled the sequence to include Nos. 1, 5 and 4 on Sunday afternoon, concluding with Nos. 2, 6 and 3 on Monday evening.
On the Sunday edition, this made some dramatic sense. The early First Quintet -- written when Mozart was 17 and isolated from the others by 14 years -- was an obvious choice as a leadoff piece, while the anguished, at-times prophetic Fourth Quintet -- written in that ominous Mozartean key of G minor (a la the Symphonies Nos. 25 and 40) -- could easily stand on its own after intermission. The differences between the quintets are not huge -- certainly not like those, say, in a Beethoven quartet cycle -- but they were just enough to balance the program.
In terms of performance, we were in extremely skilled hands. The Brentano foursome (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Maria Lee, cello) -- joined on Sunday by violist Hsin-Yun Huang -- produced an astonishingly unified, smooth, burnished-wood tone quality, not a thread out of place. A good deal of their rich sound can be attributed to the double-viola scoring, but even in passages without the extra viola part, the group leans toward the dark side anyway.
They chose mostly vigorous tempos, tugging at the intensities within the Fourth and Fifth Quintets, sharply characterizing the carefree Rondo of the Fourth, enforcing dynamic contrasts without exaggerating anything.
This kind of absolute unity reminds one of what the Guarneri Quartet sounded like live in its prime about a quarter of a century ago.