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W.A.MOZART (1756-1791)
Chamber Music – Salzburg Festival (1956-1991)

CD1
Tracks 1-4 - String Quartet in F, K.428 (a)
Tracks 5-8 – Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581 (b)
(a) Smetana Quartet (b) Barylli Quartet with Antoine de Bavier, clarinet
Recorded at Salzburg Mozarteum, Grosser Saal, (a) 21st Aug. 1956, (b) 14th Aug. 1956
CD2
Tracks 1-4 String Quartet in A, K.464 (a)
Tracks 5-8 String Quartet in C, K.465, "Dissonance", (b)
(a) Emerson String Quartet, (b) Tokyo String Quartet
Recorded at Salzburg Mozarteum, Grosser Saal, (a) 3rd Aug. 1990, (b) 28th Aug. 1986
CD3
Tracks 1-4 String Quartet in D, "Hoffmeister", K. 499 (a)
Track 5 Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K.546 (b)
Tracks 6-9 String Quartet in F, K.590 (c)
(a) Juilliard String Quartet, (b) Cleveland Quartet, (c) Hagen Quartet
Recorded at Salzburg Mozarteum, Grosser Saal, (a) 30th July 1965, (b) 26th Aug. 1985, (c) 1st Aug. 1991
ANDANTE AND 1951 [3CDs: 61:51+60:21+62:52]


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This special commemorative edition of Mozart chamber music from the Salzburg Festival during the years 1956-1991 – mirroring two hundred years later the span of Mozart’s own life – comes in the form of a beautifully presented small hardback volume. The three CDs in envelopes are neatly bound inside the front and back covers. The rest of the contents include a note by the producer Gottfried Kraus, an article on Mozart’s chamber music by the American critic Harry Haskell, and a biographical note on the composer from the New Grove. This last has no author’s name, which is curious, since all the on-line articles on the Grove web-site are credited, and the "GroveMusic" logo appears on the cover of this issue. Be that as it may, all of this appears in three languages, interspersed with photographs of the featured quartets (though unfortunately not of clarinettist Antoine de Bavier), of Mozart, of the Salzburg Mozarteum etc.

The performances are of course live, and one could forgive the most experienced musicians for being somewhat overwhelmed at finding themselves in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum. There are many signs of ‘nerves’ – the Smetanas sound undeniably tight at the start of K.428, though they soon relax and give an assured and highly musical reading, characterised by that famous golden tone, even in fortes. The Andante is warmly expressive, stylistically very much of its time, with a pronounced legato that sometimes edges towards portamento. The wit and elegance of the Minuet and Trio is superbly caught, while the final Allegro vivace has just the right restless energy.

The Barylli Quartet performed for a relatively short time as such – from 1951-1960. They appear here with clarinettist Antoine de Bavier, later better known as a conductor, who not only has no photograph but is omitted from the biographical notes too, which seems a pity. Their Clarinet Quintet begins unbelievably slowly, and de Bavier’s first entry is tentative and insecure. Things from there on don’t improve much, and generally this is a languid, even torpid performance, that never develops any true life or inner momentum. De Bavier is not helped by the balance, which puts him at a disadvantage to his string colleagues. This is unfortunate, as most of the recordings are outstandingly good.

Much finer is the Emerson Quartet from the USA, recorded here in 1990 playing K.464 in A. This quartet is unusual in having its Minuet and Trio second in the order of movements, and the Emersons bring out the chromatic intensity of this and other movements well. Their playing is suavely confident, with an enviable inner understanding and deep security of ensemble. Some may find their attack somewhat heavy, even savage, in places. Yet this third of Mozart’s so-called ‘Haydn Quartets’ is a forthright and robust work, which I believe responds well to the Emerson’s emphasis on textural and dynamic contrast. For example, their use of senza vibrato (i.e. the instruments are played without using the customary vibrato technique) in the return to simple four-part harmony in the middle of the Andante, contrasting with the more complex writing on either side, is, to me, strikingly effective.

Haydn’s famous words of 1785 to Leopold Mozart – "your son is the greatest composer I know either personally or by repute" – may seem almost like faint praise from our modern perspective. But Mozart himself would certainly not have felt that. Such an endorsement from his world’s greatest living musician would have been immensely warming and encouraging. No doubt Haydn was flattered by Mozart’s clear adoption of many of his methods in these quartets, and he returned the compliment in many musical ways, such as the Representation of Chaos in his Creation, influenced by the dark chromatic harmonies of the introduction to the Dissonance Quartet, K.465, here played by the Tokyo Quartet in a recording from 1986. The contrast with the Emersons is interesting and welcome, the Japanese ensemble playing less forcefully and in a generally less extrovert way. This is in keeping with the character of the piece, which is a far more ‘inward’ work in many ways than K.464, though the finale is a blithe movement where the clouds eventually seem to blow away, and the Tokyos give a delightfully busy performance of this.

CD3 opens with the Juilliard Quartet playing K499, the "Hoffmeister" Quartet. This settles into another fine performance, once one has got over the shock of a truly horrendous viola entry near the beginning. A rather laboured Minuet and Trio (again second in the running order as in K.464) is followed by the passionate Adagio, which is tackled with great warmth, despite tiny imperfections of ensemble and intonation here and there – the sort of things that are bound to happen in live performances. The quirky finale, starting out almost as an improvisation, gets a sharply characterised reading, though the internal balance of the quartet is not always ideal; hard to tell if this is the playing or the recording, and it’s possibly a bit of both.

We then have a reading from 1985 by the Cleveland Quartet of that short masterpiece the Adagio and Allegro K.546, better known in its version for string orchestra. The Adagio takes the chromaticism found in the introduction to the Dissonance several stages further, and here, as in the Fugue, the Clevelands play with disciplined intensity.

The final item of this mouth-watering issue is, appropriately, Mozart’s final quartet, K.590 in F, played by the Hagen Quartet in 1991, making this also the latest of the recordings. This is a most extraordinary work, in the equality with which it treats the four members of the quartet, in the harmonic language and in the rigour of its motivic development (most of all in the wonderfully witty and unpredictable finale), which points clearly towards Beethoven.

An issue, then, which has been lovingly presented and prepared, and which is packed with rare musical pleasures.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

 



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