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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
String Quartet in A major K.464 (1784-5) [33:53]
String Quintet in D major K.593 (1790) [28:22]
Brentano String Quartet
Hsin-Yun Huang (viola, K.593)
rec. 27 May–1 June 2005, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
ÆON AECD 0747 [62:25]

 


The outer blurb and booklet notes make a big thing of the coupling on this disc: “Pairing Mozart’s String Quartet K.464 and String Quintet K.593 amounts almost to a militant gesture: defending two relatively little-known works ...” Little known works? by Mozart? Surely not. Trawling through the catalogue however certainly reveals a dearth of readily available recordings of the K.593 Quintet, and K.464 appears most often in complete sets of the ’Haydn’ set. The point Antoine Mignon is making in his booklet notes is that each of these works suffer in the shadow of more famous close relatives, namely the ‘Dissonance’ Quartet K.465, and the K.515-516 Quintets.

Whatever the thinking behind presenting this programme, it certainly works well. Both of these works fall into the ‘sunny’, more relaxed category of Mozart’s output, which is not to say that the music is a pushover to the serious listener. Filled with subtle twists and turns, for instance in the extended variations of the Andante third movement of K.464, Mozart revels in the purity of expression the medium offers. The balance of apparently simple melodic shapes and the intellectual demands of a highly developed polyphony make this work as easy or as complex as a game of chess, depending on how you approach it. Mozart himself, in his dedication to Haydn, freely admitted that these ‘sons’ cost him ‘the greatest fatigue, the most labour’ and with the compact intensity of development from a minimum of means in the finale I can well believe it.

The Brentano Quartet performs with a great deal of subtle gradation of colour and nuance. Theirs is a relatively romantic view both of these works, employing all of the expressive resources of modern string quartet technique while remaining sensitive to Mozart’s style and idiom, much as they appear with recordings such as those of the Hagen Quartet or the Lindseys. Arguably, there could be more expression drawn from some parts of the music, but there is a fine line to be drawn between intense involvement and mannered over-reverence, and I sense that The Brentanos know exactly where those boundaries lie.

The fuller ensemble of the String Quintet K.593 provides quite a surprising contrast with the quartet, and the balance of the instruments shifts a little, the cello being pushed more to one side. The playing is excellent however, not inhumanly perfect in all of those runs, but utterly convincing – exciting and graceful, transparent and sensitive, moving and eloquent. It’s one of those recordings that, when you play it, you find yourself thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind if they played this at my funeral…’ Is it entirely perfect? Not completely: First violin Mark Steinberg’s vibrato is just a little too loose and slow on occasion for my taste, and the odd mildly irritating grunt pops in from his position from time to time. There are some acoustic reflections which give a mild phasing effect at some sections later on in the Quintet which suggests some kind change between sessions - possibly even just a change in the weather. These are very minor gripes however, and are only likely to crop up if you have to write a review and find something negative to balance all of those superlatives. With a gorgeous bloom of acoustic resonance from the venue and plenty of air around the musicians, this beautifully engineered package is one with which I shall be able to live happily for a long time.

Dominy Clements

                   


 


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