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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Complete String Quartets, Volume 2
CD 1: B flat, K172 (1773) [12:21]; F, K168 (1773) [10:41]; B flat, K458, 'Hunt' (1784) [22:17]; F major, K590 (1790) [23:16].
CD 2: A, K464 (1785) [31:34]; D minor, K173 (1773) [14:37]; A, K169 (1773) [11:37]; G, K156/K134b (1772) [10:36]; D, K155/K134a (1772) [8:49].
CD 3: C, K465, 'Dissonance' (1785) [26:43]; G, K80/K73f (1773/74) [11:29]; F, K158 (1772-73) [12:22]; C, K170 (1773) [12:33]; E flat, K160/K159a (1773) [9:04].
American String Quartet (Peter Winograd, Laurie Carney (violins); Daniel Avshalomov (viola(; David Gerber (cello)).
rec. SUNY Purchase, New York, February/November 1996, February/November 1997.
NIMBUS NI 2533-55 [3 CDs: 69:25 + 76:20 + 73:27]

Experience Classicsonline

Dominy Clements reviewed Volume 1 of the American Quartet's Mozart here tracing the recordings' provenance back to the original Music Masters issue. I share my fellow reviewer's admiration of the Hagen Quartet's Mozart, by the way. It is good to see them now on the Nimbus label.

The early quartets of Mozart have certainly attained less currency than the mid- and late ones, and yet there is much to delight here. Violist Daniel Avshalomov's booklet notes identify the influence of Sammartini. If the first movement of K172 is lively and polished, the slow movement enters new expressive realms. The American String Quartet is careful not to stretch stylistic boundaries, thereby strengthening rather than weakening the effect. The Menuetto, too, although brief (2:53) includes little moments of counterpoint above its call of duty.

The F-major, K168 begins in the most civilised of fashions and slowly invites in delicious glimpses of counterpoint. The first movement is a mere 3:12, and gives the impression it could have been much longer, such is the energy of its themes. The Andante's emotion similarly seems to overflow its 2:54 duration, possibly a result of the American Quartet's singular devotion to the text they present. The finale is a fugue, full of vigour - as Avshalomov puts it, 'Mozart's glee is evident and it is our pleasure to communicate'.

The B flat Quartet, K458 - the so-called Hunt - is given an extrovert, eminently contented performance. Avshalomov's notes refer to the Menuetto as 'unusual in its usualness'; the American String Quartet makes it sound genteel, gentle and utterly charming. It provides the perfect foil for the sophistications of the extended Adagio - at 7:05, the longest movement of the quartet. This movement includes moments of exquisite hush, carried superbly in the ambient space of this fine recording. Most importantly the American Quartet carries the concentration superbly. The finale offers an opportunity for that concentration to dissipate in Mozart's wonderful free-flow invention.

Mozart's last quartet, the B flat, K590, is given a tremendous performance here. The recording is marvellously clear but eschews lushness so that Mozart's clarity of linear thought shines through. The American Quartet delights in Mozart's fragmenting of theme as much as in the long, cantabile lines of the first movement. The Andante is a dream, perfectly paced in two. Avshalomov's notes debate the pros and cons of the markings of 'Allegretto' - MS - and 'Andante' - first edition. Avshalomov claims that, rightly done, the finale should 'project a jazzy ease'; it is easy to hear what he means here. The very close is expertly negotiated, with just the right amount of wit.

Although the first disc included two later quartets side-by-side (K458 and K590), placing them last in the playing order, each of the remaining discs offers a single later quartet as a starter, followed by a succession of four earlier works.

The A major, K464 is a work of much serenity and inner confidence, and includes a long (13:13) set of variations as its slow movement. The first movement, in triple meter, is a compositional statement of muted virtuosity, but it is the variations that impress. The American Quartet gives them full due, honouring their drama and the internalised conflict. Only in the final bars is there a question mark, that of a certain dryness accorded by the recording. The finale, though, is unalloyed delight, and finds each member of the American Quartet revelling in Mozart's gossamer web.

Interesting that K173, the last of the 13 quartets of Mozart's youth, is the most complex. The key of D minor was to be a significant one for Mozart, and certainly the first movement here is rich textured and deep in intent. The slight second movement - with the tempo marking 'Andantino grazioso' in parentheses - is outflanked here by the more severe of intent Menuetto; certainly the American Quartet's performance is highly resolute. The severity is continued in the determined counterpoint of the finale, tempered by Mozart's delightful, shadowy use of a marvellously slithery line - which actually ends the piece - and on an altered plagal cadence!

The next quartet, K169, plays less with depth, more with life. The American Quartet grant it huge joy, clearly enjoying themselves. The Andante has no pretensions - although it contains plains of contrast - while the Menuetto is as charming as they come. The theme of the finale is almost bumpkin-like in its rusticity, and it is beautifully carried off here.

Mozart was a mere 16 years old when he penned K156 - some would possibly argue that was quite old for him. The first movement's theme, though, is almost a bright version of the 'Lachrymosa' from the Requiem, and the Adagio, as the notes claim, is indeed beyond the composer's years; maybe only its brevity (3:52) reminding us of his youth. It is exquisitely delivered here - especially from the sweet-toned first violin, Peter Winograd. It is the finale that is magnificently inventive, though; if you ever need to demonstrate to someone why they should listen to some of Mozart's earlier quartets, this would be a good track to play them. Textures dance but are thinned down; the American Quartet implies a Mendelssohnian lightness. These six early works, known sometimes as the 'Milanese' quartets, use Boccherini as a model. And finally for Disc 2, the D major, K155, the highlight of which is surely the magnificently simple Andante. Here, the duration (2:54) does not imply the slight; rather, Mozart fits a wealth of inspiration into a perplexingly short time-span, a span he seems to somehow magically extend. Even the expressive shadings of the ever-so-brief finale elevate the music to a higher realm.

The so-called Dissonance Quartet finds the American Quartet in fresh form for the Allegro, a freshness all the more effective thanks to the shadowy explorations of the famous Introduction which gives the quartet its nickname. The civility and élan are both thrown into high relief by the chromaticisms that preceded them. The Andante cantabile is a joy in its sheer concentration and in its unwillingness to settle, while the finale's twists and turns run their path intriguingly. Perhaps the fortes could have a little more energy about them, but this remains a highly impressive reading. If I still prefer the Hagen Quartet on DG, the American Quartet runs a close second.

Interesting how the very first quartet (K80) begins with a lovely slow movement (Adagio). The innocence and the vim of the brief ensuing Allegro is charming and the way the quartet ends is wonderfully done. The brief F major, K158 is a slight affair. There are no pretensions whatsoever to the opening Allegro (all 2:54 of it). All credit to the American Quartet for honouring the work's modest dimensions and not crediting it with ambition it simply does not possess. The ensuing Andante un poco Allegretto is not quite as modest, introducing at least a sprinkling of counterpoint before the finale, a Tempo di Menuetto speaks in a language of secrets. In this, the longest and most enigmatic movement, the American Quartet captures the very essence of discovery.

The C major, K170, begins with an Andante as opposed to an Allegro - this is a delightful set of variations on an asymmetrical, 17-bar theme. The robustness of the Menuetto seems to follow on naturally, and the American Quartet finds the delicate heart of the Un poco Adagio with remarkable ease. The only problem is that one expects the slow movement to last significantly longer than it does.

Finally, the E-flat, K160, another slight work but one of great integrity. Perfectly proportioned within its own remit, this is a delightful piece that receives, in turn, a delightful performance. It is entirely fitting that a box of such dedicated, vigorous performances should end with a vigorously energetic movement like this one.

The recording is open and clear. This set won't, in the final analysis, rate first in my affections, but it has nevertheless earned a respected place there. Well worth investigating.

Colin Clarke 

see also review by Brian Wilson


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