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
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.
Biddulph sound engineers have provided a warm, airless and reasonably
clear recording that accentuates the balmy feeling of comfort
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 ‘Hoffmeister’
String Quartet K.499.
see also Review
by Jonathan Woolf