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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Chamber Music
Divertimento for violin, viola and cello in E flat major K563 (1788) [49:21]
Quartet for oboe, violin and ‘cello in F major K370 (1781) [14:32]
String Quartet no 14 in G major K 387 (1782) [21:11]
String Quartet no 15 in D minor K 421 (1783) [30:45]
String Quartet no 16 in E flat major K428 (1784) [33:40]
String Quartet no 17 in B flat major K 458 “The Hunt” (1784) [32:49]
String Quartet no 18 in A major K464 (1785) [37:42]
String Quartet no 19 in C major K465 “Dissonance” (1785) [38:06]
String Quintet in B flat major K174 (1773) [39:52]
String Quintet in G minor K516 (1787) [39:33]
Smithson String Quartet (Jaap Schroder (violin), Marylin McDonald (violin) Judson Griffin (viola) Kenneth Slowik (cello), Lisa Rautenberg (2nd viola in K174 and K516))
rec. Chateaubriant, France, 19-23 September 1990 (disc 1); Evangelische Kirche, Honrath, Germany, 16-23 October 1989 (Discs 2-4); Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London, UK, 17-21 October 1990 (Disc 5). DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3727782 [5 CDs: 63:58 + 66:17 + 66:34 + 75:53 + 79:13]

I have often thought that Mozart’s sublime quartets 14 to 19, mark one of the greatest gifts from one composer to another. The relationship between these two masters was clearly very close and marked by mutual admiration and respect. One only has to consider the profound effect the news of Mozart’s death had on Haydn, engaged as he was on the first of his visits to London. At such a vast distance from Vienna, Haydn didn’t learn about the tragedy for several weeks. When the news finally reached him he could only record with difficulty in his notebook “Mozard starb den 5th Dec”. It was only later that he could bring himself to write to Johann Puchberg: “For some time I was beside myself about his death, and I could not believe that Providence would so soon claim the life of such an indispensable man.”
The works were actually inspired by a set of quartets composed by Haydn. His Op 33 had been published in Vienna in April 1782 and Mozart heard them soon afterward. It seems they immediately inspired such enthusiasm that he decided to embark upon a series of his own. Since he had in effect abandoned the genre some nine years earlier, in 1773, the task he had set himself was not easy, especially as he was determined to make them worthy of his friend’s dedication. His struggle is clear from the length of time it took for them to appear, as well as hints in his dedication, (“they are undeniably the fruits of long and laborious efforts”). Indeed they provide a salutary reminder that not everything Mozart touched was the product of “effortless genius” as some would have us believe. Nevertheless all the hard work was certainly well worth it.
Such was their effect that at a recital attended by both Leopold Mozart and Haydn, in Vienna on 11 February 1785, the latter confided to Leopold: “In all honesty and as God is my witness I am compelled to tell you that your son is the greatest composer that I have ever come across; he exudes style but more than that he masters the science of musical composition par excellence.”
These so-called “Haydn” quartets then form the core of this collection from Virgin Classics. In addition to these works we have two of Mozart’s quintets, plus the oboe quartet and the magnificent trio, or rather divertimento, K563. On the face of it a rather odd assortment it has to be said, and for a while I was perplexed as to whom exactly this collection was aimed at.
Leaving aside the uncharitable view that this is merely a “hoovering-cum-cheap-reissue exercise”, I would suggest two possible target audiences. Either the aim is to provide a useful and inexpensive collection for the impecunious newcomer, or perhaps provide an opportunity for the more seasoned collector to try some or all of these works on original instruments.
I listened to the discs in fairly random order, dipping first into the quintets. The nervous, anxious quality of the opening of K516 is well caught by these players; indeed the overtones of that other great G minor masterpiece, the Symphony no 40, are thoughtfully underlined. The playing is clean and clear, without any tendency to squeeze and distend individual notes, noticeable in some of the earliest recordings claiming historical awareness. Rosslyn Hill Chapel provides perhaps the most resonance of the venues used, but this positively helps in the 3rd movement of K516 by creating a veiled warmth, like the slow guttering of a candle, which seems most appropriate. The finale, like the opening movement, begins with a tense introduction, although in this case it gives way to a delightful lolloping theme, like a gentle outdoor canter. In all I thought the performance measured up favourably to the famous Grumiaux Ensemble recordings on Philips (Mozart Edition Vol. 7 464 830 2), although some may prefer the slightly drier studio warmth of that set.
Turning to the quartets, a wonderful melding of enthusiasm and diligence, I found much the same positive qualities. Spurred on by Haydn’s example, Mozart decided to exercise great craft and match the skill and deep understanding of his great contemporary. In his dedication he refers to the older man as “my dear and trusted friend”, and refers to the quartets as his “six children” which he entrusts, “to the protection and guidance of a man who at the time was very famous. Fortunately, this famous man happened to be the best friend of the father..”
The “Hunt” in the Smithson’s hands is generally a delight, the quartet in particular capturing the joy and playfulness of the finale. I only queried the rather overemphasised first note of the three note second phrase in the minuet (i.e. de da dum, de da dum, de da dum) that I felt rather upset the line. Any reservations I had however were soon dispelled in the “chase-my-tail” finale, a genuinely carefree outcome.
Meanwhile the tensions and false relations of the “Dissonance” quartet’s opening are well realised without undue emphasis, perhaps something more clearly caught by original instruments ? The players incidentally perform on genuine period strings not modern copies. Jaap Schroder’s experience shines through particularly well in this opening movement, especially in the way he handles the difficult figurations for the first violin with aplomb.
Finally in relation to the quartets, mention must be made of the first of their number K387, which has the unusual feature of a fugal device in the finale. This is no po-faced descent into academia however; in Mozart’s hands the device is transformed and enhanced into a marvellous “opera buffa” type finale, the players here evidently enjoying themselves and exhibiting great verve.
Incidentally, I should observe that the Smithsons observe pretty generous repeats throughout, making these quartets quite substantial works. This is not a factor one can always assume or take for granted. For instance the otherwise interesting set by the Guarneri Quartet (RCA Red Seal Complete Collections 82876 60390 2) ignore many of them completely. Apart from aesthetics, this results in their discs averaging around 45 minutes in length, whilst the Smithson’s are nearer 65!
To complete our roundup we turn to the opening disc, containing the great Divertimento K563 and the Oboe Quartet. Here once more the players rise to the challenge of the music and again provide favourable comparison with any of their distinguished forebears. The French venue used by the Smithsons is very slightly drier than those used for the quartets and quintets, with good effect; possibly also the players have been placed marginally nearer the microphones.
Overall the quality and insightfulness of the playing throughout this enterprise is very welcome, albeit perhaps no great surprise given the personnel involved. After all Jaap Schröder combined with Christopher Hogwood to record all the Mozart symphonies for L’Oiseau Lyre in the early 1980s, whilst the cellist Jaap ter Linden (in K563) also presided over a set of the complete symphonic works for Brilliant Classics.
I have derived a great deal of enjoyment and insight from this set and would be willing to give it a fair welcome. … albeit with two small but important reservations.
Firstly, given a presumed target audience of the impecunious newcomer, why do the notes make no reference at all to the two quintets? This is odd to say the least and appears to demean one fine and one great work. Worse however is to follow. The poor compiler can’t have been aware of the finished pressings since the playing order on disc 3 is actually the reverse of the listing – the “Hunt” quartet comes first not second! Anyone coming to this wonderful music afresh would be completely flummoxed – let alone if they tried to match up what they were hearing with the sleeve-notes. A ha’poth of tar anyone?
Ian Bailey


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