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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Prussian Quartets
String Quartet (No. 21) in D major, K.575 (1789) [25:04]
String Quartet (No. 22) in B flat major, K.589 (1790) [23:47]
String Quartet (No. 23) in F major, K.590 (1790) [27:30]
Tokyo String Quartet: (Martin Beaver (violin I); Kikuei Ikeda (violin II); Kazuhide Isomura (viola); Clive Greensmith (cello))
rec. Sprague Hall, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA, 28-29 May, 6-8 Nov 2004. DDD
BIDDULPH RECORDINGS 80215-2  [76:45]


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It was fashionable for eighteenth century composers to write string quartets 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 set of six ‘Russian quartets, Op.33 which prompted him to explore enthusiastically a number of substantial artistic challenges. Mozart did not markedly advance the form of the string quartet as used by Haydn. However his individuality enabled him to achieve a depth of feeling and thought rarely encountered in Haydn. This was matched by Mozart’s courage to experiment with progressive harmonic and melodic constructions.

The present release by the Tokyo String Quartet contains three of a projected set of six string quartets; the last works that Mozart was to compose for the medium. These were commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, following Mozart’s return to Vienna from Berlin, where he had met the King in 1789. King Wilhelm was an ardent music lover and also a keen cellist. The assignment required the string quartets to have prominent parts for the cello, especially in the instrument’s most songful high register.

Mozart wrote the first of his set, the String Quartet in D major, K.575 within a few months of the commission in the summer of 1789. Two further quartets in B flat major, K.589 and F major, K.590 respectively, were completed in May and June of the following year. This happened during a period of substantial difficulties, that included financial anxiety and the worst bout of depression Mozart had experienced in his lifetime. As it transpired, Mozart only managed to complete half of the planned set of six and these were published as Op. 18 in 1791 a few weeks after his death. Although the three quartets completed were not given any dedication and were never sent to King Wilhelm of Prussia, they have become known as the ‘King of Prussia’ Quartets. Owing to the prominent part for the cello in K.575 and the first two movements of K.589 they are sometimes known collectively as Mozart’s ‘Cello’ Quartets. Occasionally one comes across the first Quartet K.575 being referred to as the ’Cello Quartet. By the time Mozart wrote the last two movements of K.589 and the entire K.590, the emphasis of the cello part had diminished; he must have given up on the Royal dedication and the quartet textures are wholly usual. Mozart was to refer to the three Prussian Quartets as ‘tiresome works’ yet they are as adventurous as anything in the Mozart catalogue.

The award-winning and seven-times Grammy-nominated Tokyo String Quartet was founded over thirty five years ago at the Juilliard School in New York. They have earned a reputation as one of the foremost chamber ensembles in the world today. They perform using a set of four instruments that were made by Antonio Stradivarius and are known collectively as ‘The Paganini Quartet’. The four instruments were acquired and played by the renowned Genoa-born virtuoso Niccolo Paganini during the nineteenth century.

These three Prussian Quartets are here performed most deliberately and consistently. Yet surely the Vienna of Mozart’s day was more exciting and characterful than these interpretations would lead us to believe. Unfortunately when compared to several other successful versions in the catalogues, the Tokyo display practically nothing in the way of vitality and spirit in the allegros and are virtually devoid of any heart-felt passion or anguish in the andante and largo movements. Consequently throughout all the movements their performances offer only modest contrast in dramatic mood. The stately and graceful playing comes across as safe, secure and staid with comfortable interpretations that are lacklustre and lethargic. It is as if the players are wearing emotional straitjackets.

The Biddulph sound engineers have provided a warm, airless and reasonably clear recording that accentuates the balmy feeling of comfort and cosiness.

In these quartets for the vital and spontaneous feel of their interpretations I  have no hesitation in recommending the 1976 recordings from the Alban Berg Quartet. These have been re-released on a double set on the Warner Classics’ Elatus label 2564 60809-2. The generous couplings are the String Quartet K.468 and the String Quartet ‘Dissonance’, K.465.

For those who prefer them performed on period instruments, the fresh, eloquent and polished recordings from Quatuor Mosaïques (pronounced: KA-tu-or Mo-zy-EEK) are incontestably the ones to have. The String Quartets K.575 and K.590 recorded in 1998 are on Auvidis Astrée E 8659 with the String Quartet K.589 recorded in 2001 on Auvidis Astrée E 8834, coupled with the ‘HoffmeisterString Quartet K.499.

Michael Cookson

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf



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