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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K465 Dissonance (1785) [36.30]
String Quartet No. 20 in D major, K499 Hoffmeister (1786) [33.49]
Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea-Fisher, violin; Laura Samuel, violin; Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola; Alasdair Tait, cello)
rec. 29 October-1 November 2005, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 3 44455 2 [70.29]
 

With these superb performances of Mozart’s Dissonance and Hoffmeister quartets the exciting Belcea Quartet firmly establish themselves as one of the finest ensembles on the international chamber music scene. Monitoring their progress, both in the recital hall and in the recording studio, I have seen them go from strength to strength. They have developed and attained a maturity rare in an ensemble so young and it is good to see them recording two great Mozart chamber scores in this his 250th birthday year. This recording follows on the heels of their double set of Britten’s three string quartets and three Divertimenti on EMI Classics 5 57968 2; an outstanding recording that I selected as one of my ‘Records of the Year’.
 
By 1782 Mozart had become familiar with and admired many of the great string quartets of Haydn, particularly the six ‘Russian’ quartets Op.33. These opened up for him substantial artistic challenges that he was to explore enthusiastically. Mozart did not markedly advance the string quartet form as developed so expertly by Haydn. However, Mozart’s individuality enabled him to succeed with a depth of feeling and emotion, rarely encountered in Haydn. He also had the courage to experiment with progressive harmonic and melodic constructions.
 
The first work here is the quartet K465, known as the Dissonance which was composed in Vienna in 1785. The C major score is the last of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets and it quickly gained the sobriquet Dissonance from commentators and audiences alike for the adventurous harmonic excursions of its slow introduction. In fact, some music dealers in Italy returned the scores to the publisher thinking that the rich chromaticisms were mistakes. The Hungarian Prince Grassalkovics was so incensed by the score’s tonal audacities that he tore up the parts from which his household string quartet were performing. Even Haydn expressed some initial shock but defended the bold prefatory chords by saying, “Well, if Mozart wrote it, he must have meant it.”
 
The confident power of the C major, K465 score offers lively contrasts with rapidly changing moods, which the Belceas, with dramatic intensity, aptly demonstrate. They offer a security of ensemble that many leading quartets should strive to emulate. In the extended opening movement adagio - allegro the players provide an appealing vivacity and considerable expression. The poignant second movement andante cantabile is one of Mozart’s most beautiful lyrical inspirations and in the hands of the Belceas the deep expressiveness is conveyed with skill and sensitivity. The quartet displays its flexibility and control in the sturdy and spirited third movement menuetto-allegro-trio that alternates forte and piano with some abruptness. In the finale the bright allegro pays homage to the spirit of Haydn with the players in total control bringing out the relaxed good humour of the movement.
 
The Hoffmeister K499 was planned to be the first in a set of quartets, but it was never completed, so it remains on its own. The year of its composition was 1786 in Vienna and its subtitle refers to Mozart’s friend, benefactor, composer and publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. It is believed that the work was composed either as a commission from Hoffmeister or to settle a debt between them. The D major score is characterised by a playful elegance, yet it is underlined by what Alfred Einstein described as, “despairing under a mask of gaiety.” Biographer Alec Hyatt King refers to it as, “… a rather strange work, that perhaps lacks the immediacy and touching qualities of the best of its predecessors but [is] by no means inferior to them in artistry. Such elusive, ambiguous music repays prolonged study.”
 
The Hoffmeister is a gracious work and in the opening allegretto the Belceas are appropriately clear and direct. The brief second movement menuetto, also marked allegretto, has unusually rich and dense textures which are robustly communicated. The unsettling adagio, pervaded by luxuriant textures, is given a deeply moving performance. Written with jeu d’esprit the closing movement allegro contains deft touches of surprise and is memorably performed with dynamism and intensity.
 
There are many available versions of the Dissonance and the Hoffmeister and the performance standard of is usually extremely high. For me there is a straight choice between this release using modern instruments on EMI Classics and the period-instrument recordings from the award winning Quatuor Mosaïques on Astrée Naïve. The Dissonance is on Astrée Naïve E 8845 c/w K464 and the Hoffmeister on Astrée Naïve E 8834 c/w K589 (or both as part of a five disc Mozart box on Astrée Naïve E 8889). With playing of real distinction, that is high on expression, purity and artistry, the interpretations from the Mosaïques offer new insights. These Astrée Naïve releases are beautifully presented and most have the advantage of state-of-the-art sound with a mid-price tag offering an extra incentive. However, the Mosaïques recording of the Hoffmeister has an extremely bright sound which some commentators have found problematic.
 
As an alternative to the above recordings I strongly admire the accounts from the Alban Berg Quartet recorded between 1976 to 1979 and now available separately on two, mid-price, double sets from Warner Classics Elatus. These performances are invigorating and immediate with extra ingredients of style and expressive beauty. The K499 is on Elatus 2564 60678-2 c/w K387, K458, K421, K428 and K465 is on Elatus 2564 60809-2 c/w K464, K575, K589, K590.
 
In summary this memorable EMI Classics release is hard to beat. The sound quality is bright, clear and well balanced and the liner notes from Duncan Druce add to the high standard of the issue. A firm recommendation.
 
Michael Cookson
 

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