“The best thing I have ever written,” is how Mozart exuberantly characterized his E-flat Quintet, K. 452, to his father Leopold, a few days after its premiere on April 1, 1784, in Vienna’s Burgtheater. “How I wish you could have heard it, and how beautifully it was performed! The audience was enthusiastic.” We might question the composer’s evaluation of this ingratiating charmer, but another vote of confidence came from no less than Ludwig van Beethoven, who modeled his own Op. 16 Quintet upon the work in 1797.
Mozart was in the middle of a great period of piano concertos – six in 1784 alone – and the keyboard part in the quintet reveals many signs of this preoccupation. Yet the work is also a deftly scored partnership of true chamber intimacy and responsive give-and-take. Mozart was developing a fresh style for obbligato wind parts in his concertos of this period, which this quintet allowed him to expand.
The first movement asserts its seriousness from the very beginning, in an extended slow introduction, guided by the piano but with tightly interlocked solos from each of the winds. The four winds of this unusual instrumentation are each fully characterized individuals in this fascinating, subtle exchange, which leads into an Allegro moderato of easy grace, concerto-like in texture and verve. This is irresistibly blithe music, but with a haunting touch of darkness near the end of the development section and a little hunting call joke to close. The effortless “rightness” of this music did not come as easily as we typically assume in the case of Mozart, who left a rare look at his creative process in the form of sketches for this movement.
The Larghetto is a highly colored reverie, gentle in melodic turn but greatly daring in its harmonic developments, particularly the eerie modulation into the recapitulation. Each of the winds has significant solo roles in a movement that suggests some of Mozart’s operatic ensembles in variety of mood as well as structural elements.
The concluding Rondo returns to the concerto world for a vivacious finale. It begins almost tentatively, but quickly finds its joyfully dancing footing. Reinforcing the concerto cast to the movement is an immensely clever, imitative ensemble cadenza – almost an affectionate parody of concerto gestures.
— John Henken