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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Complete String Quartets - Volume 1
American String Quartet (Peter Winograd (violin); Laurie Carney (violin); Daniel Avshalomov (viola); David Geber (cello))
rec. 1994-96, exact dates and locations not given.
NIMBUS NI 2508-10 [3 CDs: 58:15 + 68:58 + 59:36]

Experience Classicsonline

CD 1
String Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428 (1783) [24:17]
String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 589 (1890) [22:37]
String Quartet in C Major, K. 157 (1772-3) [11:22]
CD 2
String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421 (417b) (1783) [27:15]
String Quartet in G Major, K. 387 (1782) [29:30]
String Quartet in E-Flat Major, K. 171 (1773) [12:14]
CD 3
String Quartet in D Major, K. 499 (1786) [23:50]
String Quartet in B flat Major, K. 159 (1778) [11:49]
String Quartet in D Major, K. 575 (1789) [23:57]

These recordings were originally released on the MusicMasters label, and, while these three discs were – in some circles still are – available separately on the earlier edition, Nimbus has kept the exact programme content of each and boxed them together. The original edition was on 6 CDs, so if you are budgeting for future Nimbus volumes I would imagine there will be one more on the way.

As part of a comparative survey I brought out my old box of the Hagen Quartett playing the early quartets in a 3CD box DG 431 645-2, now re-released as part of their complete set. In general, the DG recording has a greater sense of space, and that of more air between the players. The playing is meatier, and with more silvery pureness to the solo lines, but you have to love the warmth of the sound made by the American Quartet on those Stradivari instruments. These only have K.157, K.159 and K.171 in common for comparison purposes, but it is this series of string quartets, written between the absurdly young ages of around 12 to 15 years old, that can waken one to Mozart’s sheer brilliance and virtuosity as a composer. The seriousness of purpose behind the Hagen’s playing brings these youthful works to full life and colour, and if I was abandoning ship and had only one pocket spare it would probably be the Hagen’s set I would take, but I am perfectly prepared to admit a certain amount of sentimental attachment in this. The American Quartet’s playing is equally committed, and if anything even more full of the youthful joy in life that these works seem to express.

For those intending to embark on a complete set of Mozart string quartets, there are a few competitors around which might need considering. At budget level there is the Naxos series played by the Éder Quartet, which as many fine qualities, but has never really convinced me that this was the ultimate experience to be had in this music. The American Quartet on Nimbus falls competitively at a fraction above bargain price, and the Hagen Quartett’s 7 CD set come in at the next level, just undercutting the well regarded Quartetto Italiano, and Talich Quartet sets, which also include other chamber music such as the quintets, violin sonatas and the like. The Quartetto Italiano on Philips is excellent, but the 1960s and 1970s analogue recordings are now becoming a little long in the tooth. The Hagen Quartett are superb on just about any level, but with every nuance weighed and considered in the subtlest of detail there might be an argument to say they are perhaps even too superb. There is also the Amadeus Quartet on DG on a 6 CD set which has been around since 1988, but still seems to command premium price. All of these will do the trick on many levels, so why consider these recordings by the American Quartet?

Well, they do have one unique selling point, and that is the ‘matched’ set of Stradivarius instruments used in the performances, loaned by the Smithsonian Institution and known as the Herbert R. Axelrod Stradivarius Quartet. Reading the notes, it would seem the cover photo hides something of a fake. The only known cello decorated by Stradivari is currently in the Prado Museum in Madrid, and the decorations from this have apparently been copied photographically and applied as transfers to the Smithsonian cello, though I haven’t been able to find out anything more about this anywhere else. Perhaps some knowledgeable expert can help me out here, but this would seem to me the equivalent of lifting some medieval illuminations and plastering them on some other precious manuscript because it wasn’t pretty enough. If Stradivari had wanted to decorate that particular cello he would presumably have wanted to or been paid to do so. I shall quit fuming at this stateside sacrilege, as it distracts from these excellent recordings, but would like my protest duly noted. What is true is that having four Stradivarius instruments is by no means a guarantee of excellence in sonics or music-making, a concern which is entirely diffused in the marvellously warm and expressive playing on these recordings.

Daniel Avshalomov has written some detailed and interesting notes for this set. Writing from a perspective as viola player in this quartet, he gives us some fascinating insights into the priorities and thought which go into working on such music. Musicians as well as audiences will do well to heed such warnings and observations. Mozart is seen by such greats as the Amadeus Quartet as the final, almost insurmountable challenge, "... because no other repertory demands such balance, clarity, grace and polish; because it is essentially vocal; because it bruises easily in the dissection and reconstruction by which other music is beneficially rehearsed ..." Showing an awareness of the fragility and ease with which the Mozart creation can be destroyed is half the battle, and I like his comment that, above all interpretative considerations, "our aim is simply to avoid getting our mortal thumbprints all over" the music.

In this sense, the American Quartet succeeds in many ways. They have a sensitivity of phrasing and lightness of articulation which preserves the magical transparency of Mozart’s music, and yet their warmly expressive vibrato and dynamic thrust do not run shy of projecting the humour and humanity of these gems of chamber music making. Not only are the instruments well matched, but the players really do form that sense of unbreakable unity which is essential to this music. There are no weak links, no quirky eccentricities which make any one player stand out – the character of the playing is in the service of the character of the music, and it is this high standard of ‘inhabiting’ the score and playing the music with as much apparent ease as breathing that will bring me back to these recordings on a regular basis. There has been comment that the American Quartet lacks some of the intimacy of some other recordings, but to my mind this is more a side effect of their unity. This genuine singularity of approach and execution means that the impression of musical discourse and conversation is less evident than with, say, the Amadeus Quartet. At this level of subtlety things become very subjective, and in the end one just has to listen and decide for oneself.

Are there any highlights to be pointed out? With playing of such uniformly high standard it is hard to pinpoint moments of superlative excellence, but if you have the chance take a listen to the opening of K.575. Uncomplicated simplicity is allowed full expression in the first few bars, but as the music unfolds and develops the intensity grows and deepens accordingly. It’s partly Mozart, partly the players, but when you look up to see that only two minutes of the exposition have passed it seems as if many worlds have been traversed already. Moving on to the second movement’s menuetto it is interesting to hear the timeless effect the inner vibrato/intensity of single notes brings: mask it with some shellac hiss and turn on the ‘mono’ button on your amp and it could be pass as one of those ‘old fashioned’ early recordings, but it still works when communicating the expression within the music. Almost every fragment holds its own story and will reveal its secrets to the alert listener, but the American Quartet’s sense of flow and structure never allows picky detail to obscure the bigger picture.

If you are looking for a beautifully recorded set of Mozart string quartets played with an almost absolute absence of flaws or intrusive ‘interpretation’ then these recordings by the American Quartet will be right up your street. Having them played on four Stradivari is almost an incidental bonus, but should be an added attraction for collectors. The American Quartet may not have the high-tensile excitement of the Hagen Quartett, and may not inspire to quite the dizzy heights of some individual releases, but as I’m sure many will agree; this isn’t always what you want after a hard day in the office. This set is of course much more than just background fodder however, and you can rest assured that I shall be first in line for the remaining releases from Nimbus.

Dominy Clements


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