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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No.1 ‘Lobkowitz’ (1799) [30:44]
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No.4 ‘Lobkowitz’ (1800) [24:42]
Quatuor Mosaïques (Erich Hobarth (violin); Andrea Bischof (violin); Anita Mitterer (viola); Christophe Coin (cello))
Recorded in September 2004, in Grafenegg Schloss ‘Alte Reitschule’, Austria. DDD
NAÏVE E8899 [55:30]

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This is a most welcome release. This is the Quatuor Mosaïques’ second volume of this early set of six Beethoven Quartets. Its release has been eagerly anticipated since the acclaimed first volume containing Op. 18, Nos 5 and 6, recorded back in 1994, on Naïve E8541 [not reviewed].

Mosaïques have carved out an outstanding reputation in the quartet repertoire of the late 18th century and they are without doubt the greatest quartet ensemble of our time performing on authentic instruments. They are celebrated the world over for their ‘period-style’ interpretations, which at the same time never lose sight of the precious European quartet tradition. Following their many benchmark recordings of Haydn, Mendelssohn and the great Mozart quartets, all on the Naïve label, it is clear that this quartet are in perfect phase to interpret the new world explored by the young Beethoven in these Op. 18 quartets.

The set saw the twenty-eight year old Beethoven, now deep into his first creative period, exploring what was new compositional territory. Beethoven had at the time already written a wide range of chamber music, including string trios, piano trios, cello sonatas, violin sonatas et al. Previously Beethoven had kept a respectful distance from the genre of the classical string quartet, that had reached the peak of its development, so profoundly marked by Haydn and Mozart.

The impetus for launching out on this challenging compositional terrain finally came in late 1798 in response to a commission for a package of six string quartets from Prince Lobkowitz, who was a native of Bohemia and a leading patron of the arts in Vienna. Though thoroughly grounded in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, these quartets continually demonstrate new attitudes, techniques and nuances of expression. For the time, in these quartets, the remarkable innovation and incredible experimentation evinced by Beethoven’s later quartets are subservient to an exuberance and tranquil grace that belong to an older order.

The turn of the century was an extremely significant period for Beethoven, as at the time of, or shortly after, completing this Op. 18 set he was to astound the music world with masterworks such as the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Symphony No. 1 in C major, Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major ‘Spring’, Piano Sonata in C sharp minor ‘Moonlight’, Symphony No. 2 in D major and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. All this in a period when Beethoven had confided to close friends that his hearing was rapidly deteriorating.

String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No.1

The F major String quartet was the second of the set of six ‘Lobkowitz’ Quartets to be composed in 1799. The score, to which Beethoven undertook some drastic alterations, is particularly impressive for the highly contrasting character of its four movements. An unusual feature is the obsessive way a simple two-bar motif is subjected to extensive elaboration. In fact, this motif appears, in various guises, over a hundred times in the movement, passing from instrument to instrument, constantly changing its personality.

The distinguished Mosaïques in this F major Quartet are authoritative, communicative and intense. I especially enjoyed the yearning and longing quality of their performance in the tragic Adagio. In the bright and cheerful Finale their dynamic playing is vibrant in momentum and bursting with wit.

String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No.4

The fourth work in the set of six ‘Lobkowitz’ Quartets, the C minor String quartet was composed in 1800 and is the only one to be set in a minor key. Another unexpected and curious structural feature of the four movement score is the lack of a slow movement, instead utilising both a Minuet and a Scherzo. It is also striking that in both the opening movement and the Finale the role of the first violin is treated in a markedly concertante and virtuoso fashion.

In the C minor Quartet Mosaïques offer unalloyed pleasure in a broad and expansive interpretation and their sentient playing is of sterling quality. Dramatic playing in the opening movement offers unsettling and contrasting moods that vary from dark and brooding one minute to exciting intensity the next. The second movement, which is a Scherzo, is especially memorable as Mosaïques play with humour and playfulness, yet maintaining a suitable sense of restraint.

For the Naïve label Mosaïques on period instruments are peerless in these works and in any case have few similarly equipped competitors. Using modern instruments my preferred version of the Op. 18 six is from the Italian Quartet, recorded in Switzerland during 1972 -75 and presented in a three disc boxed set on Philips 464 071-2. Also worthy of consideration are the accounts from the Talich on Calliope. They were the first to accommodate all six works on two discs, available on two volumes; CAL 9633 (Nos. 1-3) and CAL 9634 (Nos. 4-6). Both these analogue sets from the Italian and the Talich have been digitally remastered, repackaged and re-released at bargain price. A third modern instrument version that I would not wish to be without is the digital account from the Alban Berg Quartet. They offer fine live performances recorded in Vienna in 1989 over two discs presented on the bargain priced ‘Great Artists of the Century’ series, on EMI Classics 5627782.

There would have to be a third volume should Mosaïques decide to record the last two works in Beethoven’s Op. 18 set. I realise that performances on period instruments are a niche market but this strategy hardly represents good value considering the very modest cost of the available sets from the competition. The sound quality from the Naïve engineers is cool and reasonably clear and the performers are very closely recorded. Interesting and reasonably informative liner notes are provided.

Quatuor Mosaïques are an astonishing ensemble who deserve the utmost praise for these magnificently performed scores.

Michael Cookson

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