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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet in D K575 [25.12]
String Quartet in B flat K589 [23.47]
String Quartet in F K590 [27.30]
Tokyo String Quartet
Recorded at Sprague Hall, Yale University, May and November 2004
BIDDULPH 80215-2 [76.29]

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It’s something of a coup for Biddulph to secure the venerable Tokyo Quartet though it’s fair to say that this label’s roster of contemporary artists is one of the more hidden strengths of their catalogue. But secure them they have and the result is this Mozart disc that presents the three King of Prussia Quartets.

These are carefully and often exquisitely pointed performances. The opening of the B flat is generously romanticised and floated with gorgeous liquidity. Compared with a younger but still traditionally minded group such as the Hagen (DG) they sound more raffiné, perhaps, though the corollary is that the Hagens sound more brusque. The Tokyo certainly brings a fresh rapturousness to the middle pages of this movement where a number of competitors find a more reserved patina. The Tokyo opt for a relatively cool Larghetto, pretty extrovert and toughly sinuous, whereas the Hagen find a touching warmth at a slower tempo. In the Minuet I much prefer the Tokyo’s natural sounding rhythm to the rather cagey metrical hi-jinks of the Hagen and in the finale the Tokyo keeps a tighter rein on matters of tempo adjustment and clarity of lines. There’s no point going hell for leather if inner voicings are blurred, as they can be with the Hagens.

Taking these two groups as examples of differing approaches within broadly traditional parameters is nowhere more apparent than in the Allegro moderato of K590. The Hagen treats this very much as a conversation piece, voices answering each other in a round of dialogues. The Tokyo adheres to an altogether straighter model. They tend to abjure the precise shadings and colourings of the Hagens, preferring instead old school verities of tonal congruity and burnished precision. Such a divergence continues in the Andante, where I find the Tokyo foursome commendably – if objectively – cool. Some may prefer the hymnal simplicity cultivated by the Hagens to the restrained dignity of the Tokyo. The extent of one’s attachment will depend on one’s identification with the tenor of the music, though I should add that there’s something reminiscent of the Budapest Quartet’s 1930s Mozart recordings in the Tokyo’s playing.

In K575 we find comparable virtues and objectification. This is highly cultivated and civilised playing, relaxed in the opening Allegretto and endlessly mellifluous. They bring out the voicings of the Andante splendidly and there’s some especially fine playing from cellist Clive Greensmith in the Minuet. The finale, as with all these performances, adheres strictly to the dictates of articulation and tonal beauty, blend and projection.

The list of competitors in the coupling of K589 and 590 is extensive. I admire the Alban Berg but find them rather off-puttingly self-conscious, the Brandis are sound guides, the Quartetto Italiano are older of course but still very recommendable, the Leipzig a good central recommendation. The Tokyo however makes beautiful sounds and explores the architecture of these big works with consistent perception.

Jonathan Woolf


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