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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No.5 ‘Lobkowitz’ (1798-1800) [31:46]
String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No.6 ‘Lobkowitz’ (1798-1800) [26:04]
Quatuor Mosaïques: Erich Höbarth (violin); Andrea Bischof (violin); Anita Mitterer (viola); Christophe Coin (cello)
Recorded in April 1994, in Grafenegg Schloss ‘Alte Reitschule’, Austria. DDD
NAÏVE E 8901 [57:40]


The Quatuor Mosaïques has gained an outstanding reputation in the quartet repertoire of the late 18th century and is certainly the greatest quartet ensemble of our time performing on authentic instruments. Mosaïques, celebrated the world over for its ‘period-style’ interpretations, at the same time never lose sight of the precious European quartet tradition. Following its benchmark recordings of the Haydn, Mendelssohn and Mozart quartets, all on the Naïve label, it is clear that Mosaïques is in perfect phase to interpret the new world explored by the young Beethoven in these Op. 18 string quartets.

Op. 18 saw the twenty-eight year old Beethoven, now deep into his first creative period, exploring what was new compositional territory. He had at the time already written a wide range of chamber music, including three piano quartets when he was fifteen, string trios, piano trios, an octet for winds, a quintet for piano and winds, cello sonatas and violin sonatas. Previously he had kept a respectful distance from the classical quartet, a genre that had reached the peak of its development, so profoundly marked by Haydn and Mozart. The impetus for launching out on this challenging compositional terrain finally came in late 1798 in response to a commission for a package of six string quartets from Prince Lobkowitz, who was a native of Bohemia and a leading patron of the arts in Vienna. Though thoroughly grounded in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, the quartets continually demonstrate new attitudes, techniques and nuances of expression. To many the quartets in the Op. 18 set are the most important works ever conceived in the form. For the time, in these quartets, the remarkable innovation and incredible experimentation evinced by Beethoven’s later quartets are subservient to an exuberance and tranquil grace that belong to an older order.

The turn of the century was an extremely significant period for Beethoven, as shortly after completing the set he was to astound the music world with masterworks such as the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Symphony No. 1 in C major, Septet in E flat major, Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major ‘Spring’, Piano Sonata in C sharp minor ‘Moonlight’, Symphony No. 2 in D major and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. All this in a period when Beethoven had confided to close friends that his hearing was rapidly deteriorating.

The String Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No.5 was actually the fourth work in the set to be composed. The similarities to Mozart’s Quartet in A major, K464, that Beethoven knew thoroughly, is clear. For example they share the same key and the formal structure is identical.

The charming opening movement allegro, dominated by the role of the first violin of Erich Höbarth, is played with intensity and perhaps too much seriousness. The menuetto with its contrasting trio is given a reasonable lively reading but the movement lacks sparkle and there are some episodes of hesitancy. Marked andante cantabile the slow movement is performed with a mournful reverence and with the expertly controlled pace that has become a speciality of this group. The concluding movement allegro is made to sound striding and airy.

The String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No.6 contains one of the most tragic pages found in the entire set. The opening movement allegro con brio with its appealing and light-footed first subject is performed with grace and significant artistry. In the allegro ma non troppo the players produce a performance of splendid temperament and finesse. The scherzo with its effective syncopations and whimsical trio is suitably energised. Beethoven entitled the final movement ‘melancholy’ and insisted that it be played, “with the greatest of delicacy.” Many writers have commented on the brief anguished slow passage at the start of the movement as the real beginning of Romanticism in music. The quicker music that follows in the movement rejects sorrow and embarks on a more convivial mood that the Mosaïques interpret with consummate perception and authority. 

Across both works the quartet play with commendable purity of sound offering interpretations of integrity and consummate artistry. The contrast between some of the movements would I feel have benefited from a more marked approach. However Quatuor Mosaïques have no serious competition as a period-instrument ensemble.

They have already released numbers 1 and 4 of Op 18 on Naïve E 8899 with numbers 2 and 3 to come on a future volume. For now those wanting a complete Op. 18 set will have to look elsewhere. On modern instruments my preferred version of the six is from the Italian Quartet, recorded in Switzerland between 1972 and 1975 and presented in a three disc boxed set on Philips 464 071-2. Also worthy of consideration are the Talich on Calliope, who I believe were the first to accommodate all six works on two discs, available on two volumes; CAL 9633 (Nos. 1-3) and CAL 9634 (Nos. 4-6). Both these analogue sets from the Italian and the Talich have been digitally remastered, repackaged and re-released at bargain price. A third modern instrument version that I would not wish to be without is the digital set from the Alban Berg Quartet. They offer fine live performances recorded in Vienna in 1989 and offer them across two discs presented on the bargain priced ‘Great Artists of the Century’ series (EMI Classics 5627782).

These are first class performances from Quatuor Mosaïques enhanced by a most natural sound quality. Lovers of period-instrument performances need not hesitate.

Michael Cookson







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