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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Six ‘Haydn’ Quartets
CD 1
String Quartet in G major, K387 ‘Spring’ (1782) [30.37]
String Quartet in D minor, K421 (1783) [31.32]
CD 2
String Quartet in E flat major, K428 (1783) [26.34]
String Quartet in B flat major, K458 ‘The Hunt’ (1784) [26.13]
CD 3
String Quartet in A major, K464 ‘Drum’ (1785) [33.11]
String Quartet in C major, K465 ‘Dissonance’(1785) [21.19]
Esterházy Quartet: (Jaap Schröder, violin I; Alda Stuurop, violin II; Linda Ashworth, viola; Wouter Möller, cello)
rec. September/October 1979, January/February 1980. No details of the recording venue are provided. ADD
DECCA  475 7108 [3 CDs: 62.28 + 53.05 + 64.47]

The distinguished Dutch violinist Jaap Schröder is the leader and founder of the period instrument ensemble the Esterházy Quartet. The quartet was founded in 1975 and was disbanded in 1981. Schröder is a Mozart specialist and was closely involved with the ambitious project to record all the Mozart Symphonies with The Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood. These important accounts on original instruments were warmly received at the time of their original release on Decca/L'Oiseau Lyre 433 048-2 in 1982 and they make a welcome reappearance in the Decca catalogue in Mozart’s 250th anniversary year.
 
It was fashionable for eighteenth century composers to write for the genre of the string quartet, 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. Between 1772 and 1773 Mozart completed twelve more String Quartets before his full creative power became apparent.  
 
By 1782 he had become familiar with and admired many of the great string quartets of Haydn, particularly the six ‘Russian Quartets Op.33. They 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 resulted in a depth of feeling and thought rarely encountered in Haydn, together with the courage to experiment with progressive harmonic and melodic constructions.
 
These quartets dedicated to Haydn became universally known by the dedicatee’s name. The set was first published by Artaria in late 1785 and have remained one of the cornerstones of the repertory. The first in the set, K387 dates from 1782. The fact that work on the six quartets occupied Mozart until 1785 (an unusually long time for him) indicates the seriousness he attached to these pieces. Poetic and dramatic in content and widely considered to be the greatest of the Mozart 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”. They convinced Haydn of Mozart’s greatness but it cannot be said that he always understood them.
 
The first work is the G major String Quartet No. 14, K.387 which is sometimes known as the ‘Spring. Composed in 1782 this shows Mozart’s gift for polyphonic writing. The Esterházy Quartet seem comfortable in this dense and elaborate work. Particularly impressive are the Esterházys in the summery and appealing opening movement allegro vivace assai. Displaying considerable skill and artistry the Esterházys convey the ebullient good humour of the concluding movement molto allegro.
 
The second work on the first CD is 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. Although not without some interpretative difficulties the Esterházy profitably create an atmosphere of dark colours in a score of prevailing sobriety and underlying melancholy. I would have preferred them to have adopted a softer and more meditative approach to the deep emotions of the second movement andante which if played appropriately can communicate as one of the most serene and contemplative episodes in all Mozart’s music. Sadly it seems an impossible task for the Esterházys to reach the same emotional level in this movement as interpreted by the great Quatuor Mosaďques. In the concluding movement I experienced a tentativeness that rather prevented sufficient spirit being conveyed.   
 
On the second CD the opening work is the String Quartet No.16 in E flat major, K.428 which has been described as the most concise and undoubtedly the most abstract of those dedicated to Haydn. The contrast of stern meditation and gushing optimism could be a depiction of Mozart’s mercurial temperament. There is a fine distinction between sturdiness and quiet beauty from the playing of the Esterházy in the first movement allegro non troppo. The Esterházys are impressive in the unsettling intensity of the andante and in the graceful menuetto with its short serious episodes. I would have preferred slightly more rhythm and vigour to help draw out the good humour from the concluding movement allegro vivace.
 
The String Quartet No.17 in B flat major, K.458 ‘Hunt’completes the second CD. Its title is explained by the pace of the opening theme which suggests a hunting call. On the surface the B flat major score appears to be the lightest and least profound of the six and is closest in style to that of Haydn. However, it is an uplifting and peaceful work of no less bold invention. The Esterházy provide a fresh and immediate performance that helps to reveal the expressive beauty and stylish perfection of the work. I especially enjoyed the Esterházy’s rhythmic vitality and easy charm in the joyful and lively opening movement allegro vivace assai. Ideally the eloquent slow movement adagio needed a more measured approach and the final allegro assai would have benefited from more vitality.
 
The third CD in the set begins with the String Quartet in A major, K464 ‘Drum’. It seems from the available manuscript material to have given Mozart the most difficulty in composition. It is the A major Quartet that embraces most determinedly the style of composition that Mozart described as his, “new and special way”. A special homogeneity is achieved by the intimate kinship among the principal themes of all four of the movements. The repeated-note figure from the cello part in the andante has lead some people to give the score the nickname of the ‘Drum’. With conviction and impressive insights the Esterházy are responsive to the demands of the unsettling and robust opening movement allegro vivace assai. The intensity of the closing movement allegro assai is expertly caught.
 
The set concludes with the String Quartet in C major, K465. This is the last of the ‘HaydnQuartets and quickly gained the sobriquet ‘Dissonant’ (sometimes shown as ‘Dissonance’)from commentators and audiences alike for the adventurous harmonic excursions of its slow introduction. In fact some music dealers in Italy returned the scores to the publisher thinking that the rich chromaticisms were mistakes. The Hungarian Prince Grassalkovics was so incensed by the score’s tonal audacities that he tore up the parts from which his household string quartet were performing. Even Haydn expressed some initial shock but defended the bold prefatory chords by saying, “Well, if Mozart wrote it, he must have meant it”. The Esterházy Quartet provide a firmness and expressive power in the allegro section of the extended opening movement. I felt the poignant andante cantabile would have benefited from a slightly more measured approach. The Esterházys vigorous playing in the minuet is impressive with a relaxed good humour in the closing movement allegro molto.
 
The listener is spoilt for choice in available recordings of the six ‘HaydnString Quartets. The performance standard in many of the sets is extremely high with available interpretations from most of the best known quartets, such as the Italian, Talich, Hagen, Chilingirian et al with the final choice very much down to personal taste. On the Warner Classics Elatus label I admire the accounts of four of the six ‘HaydnQuartets from the Alban Berg Quartet. These were recorded between 1976 and 1979. Unlike the more recent offerings from the Alban Berg Quartet on EMI, they can stand comparison with the very best interpretations and the mid-range price tag makes the release especially attractive (Elatus 2564 60678-2 c/w K.499 ‘Hoffmeister’ - see review). My clear first choice selection has to be the mid-price versions from Quatuor Mosaiques, using period instruments (Astrée Naďve label on E 8843; E 8844 and E 8845 (or a five CD box on E 8889)). With playing of real distinction these interpretations offer new insights together with state-of-the-art sound. Although not part of a set the new release from the Belcea Quartet of the String Quartet in C major, K465 ‘Dissonant’ is so overflowing with passion and rapt intensity it is worthy of special praise (EMI 3444552 c/w K. 499 ‘Hoffmeister’).
 
A fine Decca reissue from the Esterházy Quartet. Closely recorded and with well balanced sound.
 
Michael Cookson

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