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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Complete String Quartets - Volume 2
American String Quartet (Peter Winograd,violin; Laurie Carney, violin; Daniel Avshalomov, viola; David Geber, cello)
rec. February and November, 1996 and February and November, 1997, SUNY Purchase Music Division Recital Hall, New York. DDD.
Originally released by Amerco, Inc., on the MusicMasters label.
NIMBUS NI2533-5 [3 CDs: 69:27 + 76:22 + 73:25]
Experience Classicsonline



CD1
String Quartet in B-flat, K172 (1773) [12:25]
String Quartet in F, K168 (1773) [10:41]
String Quartet in B-flat, K458 ('Hunt') (1784) [22:31]
String Quartet in F, K590 ('Prussian No.3) (1789) [23:33]
CD2
String Quartet in A, K464 (1785) [28:34]
String Quartet in d minor, K173 (1773) [14:37]
String Quartet in A, K169 (1773) [11:39]
String Quartet in G, K156 (K134b) (1772) [10:37]
String Quartet in D, K155 (K134a) (1772) [7:49]
CD3
String Quartet in C, K465 ('Dissonance') (1785) [26:45]
String Quartet in G, K80 (K73f) (1770-1774) [11:29]
String Quartet in F, K158 (1772/3) [12:26]
String Quartet in C. K170 (1773) [12:53]
String Quartet in E-flat, K160 (K159a) (1773) [9:16]

Nimbus have already released the American Quartet's performances of nine of the Mozart String Quartets, originally issued on MusicMasters, on NI2508-10. This well-filled second volume, containing 14 quartets, completes the 6-CD set of all Mozart's 23 String Quartets. Dominy Clements gave a warm welcome to that first volume just over a year ago - see review - and I find myself very much in agreement with what he said then:

If you are looking for a beautifully recorded set of Mozart string quartets played with an almost absolute absence of flaws or intrusive 'interpretation' then these recordings by the American Quartet will be right up your street.

As on the earlier set, each CD combines early and later works; the range is even greater here than before, from the apprentice piece, K80, written in 1770 and revised a few years later, to K590, the third of the 'Prussian' Quartets and his last Quartet (1789). If, for example, No.17, the 'Hunt' Quartet, K458 steals the show on the first disc, it isn't due to the advocacy of the players, who perform the earlier works with just the same loving care. Therein lies my slight reservation about these performances: whilst the two earlier works which open the first CD receive almost ideal performances, works such as K458 don't need quite so much tenderness - indeed, they benefit from a slightly tougher approach than they receive here. The American Quartet's hunt is a rather genteel affair, more like a canter through some beautiful countryside than a rousing hunt. Daniel Avshalomov's note suggesting that this is the most approachable of Mozart's quartets - 'we know how we'll feel going on to play the work' - puts its finger on the problem: their Hunt is just a little too predictable .

Oddly enough, I recently said much the same about another multi-CD Nimbus chamber music set, the Wihan Quartet's recordings of Beethoven's Early Quartets (Op.18) on NI6105 - see review. By a strange coincidence, Avshalomov uses the very expression that I had used to indicate my slight reservations about the Wihan's Beethoven. I felt that they didn't do quite enough so suggest the ways in which Beethoven was trying to out-Haydn Haydn, an ambition which Avshalomov suggests also underlies the finale of the 'Hunt' Quartet and which I don't find quite sufficiently conveyed in the performance; it's all just a little too laid back.

It's not a matter of tempo: the Americans' opening movement is actually slightly faster than my benchmark performance by the Quartetto Italiano, yet the Italian players have the momentum which the Americans lack. The Italians also add weight to their performance by including repeats which the American players ignore - the omissions are the price which has to be paid for what appears to be the extreme generosity of offering 14 Quartets on three CDs.

The performance of Quartet No.23, K590, which rounds off the first CD does much to make amends with extremely refined playing, but here, too, the Quartetto Italiano find greater depth. After a rather gemütlich account of the first three movement, the finale scurries just a little too much.

The performance of Quartet No.18, K464, which opens the second CD starts well and the performance overall does much to make up for the shortcomings of the end of the first CD. In fact, I warmed to the performances on this second disc much more than I did to those on the first. I appreciated the sheer beauty of the playing, on well-matched Stradivarius instruments, much more; I missed the vigour and drama of the Quartetto Italiano much less and was far less troubled by the paucity of repeats.

In K464 the American Quartet offer a slightly slower account of the opening Allegro than the Quartetto Italiano, so their account of this movement and of the work in general proves the exception to my general feeling that they slightly underplay the tensions and the drama inherent in the music. Their performance of the finale, however, does seem a little lightweight after the full value which they give to the preceding Andante, largely because they omit repeats which the Italians observe, thereby reducing the movement to much less than half the length of the Andante. The Nimbus booklet gives the tempo for the finale as Allegretto non troppo; the Philips booklet and the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe give it as Allegro non troppo.

Even on CD2, though, comparisons are not always to the advantage of the new recording. I compared K173 with an off-air recording from the Emerson Quartet made in the Salzburg Mozarteum in January, 2006. The Emersons' performance adds greater weight to this comparatively early work; the extra minute which they add to the Americans' version of the opening Allegro moderato is to the music's advantage. The Emersons don't have the same mellifluous tone and the broadcast sound is no match for the excellent recording on the Nimbus set, however, so it's very much a matter of swings and roundabouts. The two groups take a broadly similar tempo for the finale but, once again, the Emersons give a performance that looks forward more to the 'Haydn' Quartets.

The Emersons, at that same 2006 concert, and the Quartetto Italiano are very much in agreement about the overall dimensions of the 'Dissonance' Quartet, K465, in that both run to around 32 minutes, with repeats observed. The Emersons and the Italians both take around 11 minutes for the opening Adagio - allegro movement, with a genuine sense of contrast as the slow introduction yields to the summer mood of the rest of the movement. If anything, the Italians make even more of the stormier mood of the opening Adagio and, therefore, an even greater contrast between the two parts of the movement, with its sunny climes illuminated much more clearly. I have no hesitation in saying that the Italians emerge clear winners from any contest with the Emersons here and their 1967 ADD recording is more than a match for the digital broadcast sound.

The American Quartet's performance comes in even better sound. Their version could (just) have run to the extra three minutes in this movement and an extra 5 minutes overall and still fitted onto the 4-quartet CD and this would have given the movement the extra stature which the other two groups find in it. The American Quartet find just a little less passion in the opening Adagio than the Italians - never mind that 21st-century ears are not troubled by the 'dissonances' in any of these performances - and there is just a little less depth to their happiness in the ensuing Allegro. Only by comparison with the Italians, however, do these minor shortcomings manifest themselves and, though their omission of repeats brings them in at two-and-a-half minutes shorter than the Emersons, I prefer the American Quartet to the latter. Thereafter the performance of the remaining movements of this work is excellent, as is that of the other Quartets, though the very early K80 which follows inevitably sounds by comparison like the apprentice work that it is. It is, nevertheless, well worth hearing in such a fine performance.

The Nimbus recording is very good throughout and the set is well presented, with an attractively illustrated booklet of notes. The cover depicts the four decorated Stradivarius instruments and the notes by Daniel Avshalomov are informative and illuminating, if a little idiosyncratic at times. The K numbers given in the booklet are those from the Köchel1 catalogue; for greater clarity, I've added the K6 numbers in my heading.

There is a great deal to be said for having all Mozart's String Quartets played by the same performers. I'm not sure that the same can be said for Beethoven, though my recent search for the ideal downloads of his String Quartets in my Download Roundups has convinced me more and more of the value of the Quartetto Italiano's performances (454 0622, 10 CDs - forget my erroneous assertion that they weren't currently available) and the Takács Quartet's three sets on Decca (470 8482, 470 8472 and 470 8492).

Sadly, what I erroneously reported of the Quartetto Italiano's Beethoven seems to be true of their Mozart; neither the set nor the individual CDs seem to be available. Philips really must reissue these classic performances, preferably as they last appeared at bargain price on 11CDs, coupled with the String Quintets. Amazon.com as I write are offering the box set for $150+, a measure of the high value which collectors are prepared to place on it.

Passionato.com can offer the set as a 320kbps mp3 download for £47.99, which is considerably more than the selling price of the two Nimbus CDs. Amazon.co.uk's £42.99 comes closer, albeit at the lower bit-rate of 256kbps. With the benefit of hindsight, I really shouldn't have allowed the fact that I owned some of the Quartetto Italiano performances (e.g. K464 and K465 on Philips 426 099-2) to put me off buying their complete set on CD. 

If I were starting from scratch to collect Mozart's String Quartets and the Italian performances were still available as a reasonably-priced box set, I'd go for it - but I'm not and they aren't. So, if it's a complete set that you're looking for, the two Nimbus boxes will do nicely.

Otherwise, if you want a little more than the American Quartet offers in the mature works, there are some excellent single and 2-CD recordings of the last ten quartets, the 'Haydn' Quartets (nos.14-19), the 'Hoffmeister' (No.20) and the three 'Prussian' Quartets (nos.20-23). Some even come at bargain or super-bargain price, such as the highly-regarded Alban Berg Quartet's set of String Quartets 14-23 in Warner's bargain 16-CD box set of Mozart chamber music (2564-62335-2), with the 'Hunt' and 'Dissonance' on super-bargain Apex 0927-40828-2. Warner Classics also have a recommendable Apex CD of two of the Prussian Quartets (0927-45975-2). It's rather short value but, with good performances for less than £5, there's little cause for complaint.

There are also performances by the Éder Quartet on Naxos (8.550540, etc.), who also offer the Moyzes Quartet in K458 and K465 (8.550105) - all very good though the recorded sound will not be to all tastes.

The Alban Berg Quartet's versions of Nos.17, 19 and 21-23 are also available for £5.99 and the single CD of the 'Hunt' and 'Dissonance' for £4.29 as 256k mp3 downloads from amazon.co.uk. If you just want the 'Haydn' Quartets, the 3-CD Philips set of the Quartetto Italiano at £23.99 from passionato.com is no better value than their complete set, but it involves a much smaller outlay (475 7344). They also have the 'Hoffmeister' and 'Prussian' Quartets, originally a 2-CD set, for £15.99 (475 7345) - again, poor value, but a smaller outlay than the complete set. Bearing in mind Amazon's asking price for the CD set, you may well feel these downloads to be worth obtaining - look out for a possible inclusion in one of my future Download Roundups.

Dominy Clements expressed a preference for the Hagen Quartet's 7-CD set, now available inexpensively on DG 477 6253. I haven't heard this set, which hasn't always been received with quite the same enthusiasm as from DC. I'd like to sample the passionato.com download and report on it in my next Download Roundup were it not for the fact that it's offered for an absurd £55.99, some £20 more than some online dealers charge for the CDs. Nor is their offer of the six 'Haydn' Quartets for £23.99 any better value. iTunes offer the complete set for £39.99, which is still dearer than the CDs, and the 'Haydn' Quartet set for £24.99. Download suppliers really need to get their pricing acts together.

All of this makes the two Nimbus sets seem like a much firmer recommendation, especially as they can be ordered direct from the Musicweb-International site for a very competitive price. If something of this quality at this very reasonable price had been around when I was discovering Mozart's chamber music 50 years ago, I'd have been over the moon. Despite the lack of space in my CD collection, I shall certainly be keeping this volume.

Brian Wilson 
 
 
 


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