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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartets Nos. 14, 15, 16, 17, 20

String Quartet No.14 in G major, K.387 ‘Spring’
String Quartet No.17 in B flat major, K.458 ‘Hunt’
String Quartet No.15 in D minor, K.421
String Quartet No.16 in E flat major, K.428
String Quartet No.20 in D major, K.499 ’Hoffmeister’
Alban Berg Quartet
No recording details provided. ADD
WARNER CLASSICS ELATUS 2564 60678-2 [Total timing 131:55]


It was fashionable for eighteenth century composers to write for the genre of the string quartet and music publishers made it a financially lucrative assignment. Mozart composed his first string quartet in G major K.80 aged fourteen in a single evening in Italy in 1770, but the work is really a Divertimento highly influenced by Sammartini of the Italian instrumental school. Between 1772 and 1773 Mozart completed twelve more string quartets before his full creative power became apparent.

By 1782 Mozart had become familiar with and admired many of the great string quartets of Haydn particularly the six ’Russian’ quartets Op.33 which had opened up for him substantial artistic challenges that he was to explore enthusiastically. Mozart did not markedly advance the form of the string quartet as used by Haydn. However his individuality enabled him to succeed in using a depth of feeling and thought rarely encountered in Haydn together with the courage to experiment with progressive harmonic and melodic constructions.

This release on Warner’s mid-price Elatus label contains four of the six string quartets which were composed between 1782-1785 and dedicated to Haydn. Poetic and dramatic in content and widely considered to be the greatest of Mozart’s quartets, never before had the composer been so complete a master of his means. According to eminent music writer David Ewen nothing that Mozart had previously written, "reveals such freedom of structure, such as unorthodox techniques, iconoclasm, varied invention and high flights of inspiration." These string quartets convinced Haydn of Mozart’s greatness but it cannot be said that he always understood them.

The first work on the recording double CD set is the G major, String Quartet No. 14 K.387 ‘Spring’. Composed in 1782 and the first of the six Haydn quartets the work shows Mozart’s gift for polyphonic writing. The Alban Berg Quartet have full measure of the dense and elaborate work and are particularly impressive in the second movement Menueto: Allegro moving effortlessly to the depths of despair in the sombre trio section.

The String Quartet No.17 in B flat major, K.458 ‘Hunt’ completes the first CD, the title of which is explained by the pace of the opening theme suggesting a hunting call. On the surface the quartet appears to be the lightest and least profound of the set of six and closest in style to that of Haydn however it is an uplifting and peaceful work of no less bold invention. In a stylish and controlled performance the players of the Alban Berg Quartet bring out the expressive beauty and stylish perfection of the quartet. I particularly enjoyed the joyful and lively opening movement Allegro vivace assai.

The second CD in the set commences with the String Quartet No.15 in D minor, K.421. In this direct and progressive work we hear Mozart’s use of bold modulations and daring harmonic changes. The Alban Berg Quartet successfully bring out the atmosphere of dark colours in a work of prevailing sobriety and underlying melancholia. I would have preferred more finesse and brooding passion in the second movement Andante which if played appropriately can be one of Mozart’s most serene and meditative episodes in all his music. There is exceptionally fine playing from the talented Alban Berg ensemble in the spirited and somewhat agitated Siciliano melody that opens the Finale.

The String Quartet No.16 in E flat major, K.428 has been described as the most concise, the most secret and undoubtedly the most abstract of those dedicated to Haydn. The contrast of austere meditation and gushing optimism could be revealing of Mozart’s mercurial temperament. There is a real peacefulness and quiet beauty in the first movement Allegro ma non troppo so sensitively played by the Alban Berg players. The Quartet are heard at their sharpest and energetic best in the good humoured final movement Allegro vivace.

The Elatus release concludes with the String Quartet No.20 in D major, K.499 ‘Hoffmeister’ which does not form part of those quartets dedicated to Haydn. Composed in 1786 between the ‘Haydn’ Quartets and the ’Prussian’ Quartets of 1789-1790 the ‘Hoffmeister’ Quartet was published by Mozart's friend Franz Anton Hoffmeister; himself a prolific composer. The ’Hoffmeister’ is a gracious work and I particularly like the clear and direct interpretation of the Alban Berg Quartet in the first movement Allegretto and their deeply emotional Adagio is most impressive.

Although we are not told in the rather brief booklet notes I understand that these quartets on this Warner Elatus release were originally recorded between 1976 to 1979 and released on the Teldec label. These early recordings from the Alban Berg Quartet, unlike their more recent offerings on EMI, can stand comparison alongside the very best interpretations of which there are many and the mid-price makes the release especially attractive. The listener is spoilt for choice as the performance standard is extremely high with interpretations from most of the premier quartets such as the Italian Quartet, Talich Quartet, Chilingirian Quartet et al and the final choice is very much down to personal taste. My personal selection would be the mid-price versions from Quatuor Mosaïques using period instruments from the Astrée Naïve label on E 8843; E 8844 and E 8845 (or a five CD box E 8889). With playing of real distinction the interpretations from Quatuor Mosaïques offers new insights together with state-of-the-art sound.

This attractive mid-price Elatus release from the Alban Berg Quartet is not my first choice in these ‘Haydn’ quartets but few listeners will be disappointed. The playing and interpretations are very fine together with decent sound quality. These performances will provide much satisfaction and should be considered for any collection.

Michael Cookson


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