Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Last Four String Quartets
CD 1
String Quartet No.20 in D, K499 (‘Hoffmeister’) (1786) [29:23]
String Quartet No.21 in D, K575 (‘Prussian’ No.1) (1789) [23:39]
CD 2
String Quartet No.22 in B-flat, K589 (‘Prussian’ No.2) (1789/90) [23:12]
String Quartet No.23 in F, K590 (‘Prussian’ No.3) (1789/90) [27:40]
The Juilliard String Quartet (Robert Mann (violin), Earl Carlyss (violin), Samuel Rhodes (viola), Joel Krosnick (cello))
rec. 21 November, 1974, Columbia Studio, 30th Street, New York. ADD.
ARKIVMUSIC SONY 77114 [54:38 + 51:26]

Though CBS in its latter days of independence reissued the Juilliard Quartet’s recordings of the last Schubert String Quartets on a mid-price 2-CD set, re-reissued by Sony on SB2K89978 – see review – neither they nor their present owners Sony/BMG ever released these Mozart recordings on CD, to the best of my knowledge, perhaps because there is such strong competition in the Mozart, not least from the Quartetto Italiano and Amadeus Quartet in recordings of much the same vintage. With those stylish Italian recordings currently unavailable, however, either as part of their 8-CD collection of all the Mozart Quartets, singly, or on Philips Duo, except as downloads or from ArkivMusic, and the Amadeus as a box set only, it makes excellent sense to reissue the Juilliard recordings.

There are, however, plenty of alternatives, which means that I must apologise for making a large number of comparisons. If you prefer to cut to the chase, skip to the end of the review.

Passionato.com have the 8-CD Quartetto Italiano set here for £27.99 and Amazon.co.uk have Nos.20-23, the same programme of four quartets as on the Arkiv/Sony reissue, here for £11.99. The Passionato download of the Quartetto’s complete set of Mozart Quartets and Quintets to which I referred in my November 2010 Download Roundup, 464 8302, has now reverted to £34.99 in mp3 and £40.99 in lossless format - here. ArkivMusic can also supply that 8-CD set for $87.99, plus packing outside the USA and Canada – here.

These four last quartets – the ‘Hoffmeister’ standing alone, while the other three form part of a set dedicated to the King of Prussia, hence the prominent cello part – are less popular than the preceding ‘Haydn’ Quartets, though their comparative neglect is undeserved. Of versions currently available, the Chilingirian Quartet on CRD in all four (CRD3427/3428), the Quatuor Mosaïques on Naïve (Nos. 20 and 22, E8834; Nos. 21 and 23 E8888), and the Amadeus Quartet as part of a complete set in a 6-CD DG Collectors Box at budget price (477 8680 – or download from passionato.com here) deserve special mention alongside the download of the Quartetto Italiano.

I must also mention a 3-CD Nimbus set on which the American Quartet couple the Third ‘Prussian’ Quartet, K590, with a selection of quartets from throughout his composing career (NI2533-5), which I reviewed some time ago – here. This forms a complete et when added to the first volume which Dominy Clements had earlier recommended (NI2508-10 - here). As DC wrote, if you are looking for a beautifully recorded set of Mozart string quartets played with an almost complete absence of flaws or intrusive ‘interpretation’ then these recordings by the American Quartet will be right up your street. Both sets can be ordered direct from the Musicweb International site at a very competitive price. (See below). If something of this quality at this very reasonable price had been around when I was discovering Mozart’s chamber music fifty years ago, I’d have been over the moon. Despite the lack of space in my CD collection, I have retained my review copy of Volume 2.
Not having heard the Mosaïques versions of these quartets, despite all that I had read in their praise, I streamed them from the Naxos Music Library to use as my principal benchmarks. I also listened to the American String Quartet in No.20, K499, downloaded from eMusic, the Amadeus Quartets, courtesy of passionato.com, and to the Salomon Quartet on an inexpensive Hyperion CD. The first thing to note is that the Mosaïques and the Salomons, both employing period instruments, observe all the repeats in the outer movements of these quartets, thereby extending the playing time of these movements of K499 very considerably, as is apparent from this table:

1st movement 2nd movement 3rd movement 4th movement
Juilliard 9:34 3:17 9:58 6:34
Amadeus 7:17 3:11 8:43 4:55
American 7:05 3:09 8:44 4:52
Chilingirian 10:03 3:00 8:48 5:04
Jerusalem* 9:12 2:58 8:19 4:53
Italian 10:08 3:03 9:08 7:07
Mosaïques 14:46 3:39 7:37 10:01
Salomon 14:00 3:32 8:10 9:08

* Free mp3 download from Jerusalem Music Centre (128 kb/s only, but acceptable) here.

The observation of repeats is something of a vexed question, but it is arguable that their omission here distorts the shape of the quartet as a whole. That being so, since I tend to prefer period instruments, without wishing to be dogmatic on the subject – and since neither of the period-instrument groups in question plays in such a way as to suggest that they are dogmatic either – my firm recommendation must be for one of these and, since the Salomon Quartet are available at budget price on the Hyperion Helios label, coupled with No.22, K589, I plump for them. (CDH55094, around £6, also available as an mp3 or lossless download here.)

Despite my overall recommendation of the American String Quartet’s two volumes, their polishing off of the outer movements of this work in record time does seem to me one of their less recommendable features. Similarly, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with the performances by the other modern-instrument quartets, even the Amadeus Quartet, who are close runners-up to the Americans in terms of timing, the first movement simply doesn’t receive its proper weight at just over 7 minutes, when it never seems to outstay its welcome at twice that length. I had fewer similar problems, however, with the American Quartet’s account of No.23, K590 (see below).

The Juilliards and Italians make fewer omissions, but still offer only two thirds of what we hear from the Mosaïques and Salomons.

ArkivMusic offer excerpts from the second movement Andante of No.21, K575, and the Allegro assai finale of No.22, K589, on their website. In No.21 my chief comparison has been with the Chilingirian Quartet, a performance which deserves all the accolades which it has received and which is coupled with No.20 for £3.36 or less from eMusic in decent 256kb/s mp3 sound. In all four movements the tempi of the Chilingirians and the Juilliards are within a whisker of each other. This is the first of the quartets which Mozart wrote in the hope of attracting the patronage of the cellist King of Prussia, hence the prominent part for that instrument. Both of these modern-instrument performances offer affective accounts of the Andante, with suitably prominent – but not over-prominent – participation from the cello. The technical assurance of both performances can be taken for granted and both are very effective, but I detect a small but significant extra degree of sentiment – not sentimentality – in the Chilingirian version and, for that reason, I identified just a shade more with their performance. It’s almost as if the Juilliards are searching for the emotional heart of the music and mostly finding it, whereas the Chilingirians are finding it spontaneously. Just occasionally the boot is on the other foot, which means that neither will truly disappoint the listener.

Though the Quatuor Mosaïques take a few seconds less for this movement and, therefore, may seem on paper in danger of missing its emotional heart, in reality nothing could be further from the truth: they actually sound more measured than their rivals and they certainly don’t miss any of the Empfindsamkeit. Even heard at a low bit-rate from the Naxos Music Library, the sound is clearer and the balance more natural than the Sony or CRD recordings.

In the finale of No.22 I started by listening to the Mosaïques, whose comparatively leisurely pace seems to ignore the assai part of the marking allegro assai. The Salomon Quartet are a shade faster, at 3:44 falling between the timings of the Mosaïques and the Juilliards, but sounding much brisker than – and, I think, preferable to – their period-instrument rivals.

The Chilingirian Quartet are slower than either of the period performances and considerably slower than the Juilliards. If the Mosaïques’ allegro is not sufficiently assai, the Chilingirians are even less so and, it seems to me, this is one of the least recommendable movements in a generally recommendable pair of CDs. This, too, can be obtained as a download at a considerable saving from eMusic and also as an mp3 or lossless download from passionato.com. The lossless download sounds very well, but, at £8.99, is only pence less expensive than the parent CD.

The Juilliard version of this movement is by some margin the lightest and fleetest of those which I compared. If this movement represents the Chilingirians at their least attractive, it shows the Juilliards at their not inconsiderable best – and it also serves to illustrate the fact that the recording is by no means dated.

The Lotus Quartet on Warner’s least expensive label, also offer a fine light-footed account of this movement. If you are looking for just Nos.21, K575, and 22, K589, well performed and recorded, this is a most recommendable purchase for around £5 in the UK. (0927495752 – rec. 1997 DDD). Why have we not heard more of this fine group?

The American String Quartet’s version of No.23, K590, included on the 3-CD Nimbus set (NI2533-5, see above), is excellent. The restrained opening sets the tone for an unassertive but satisfying account of the first movement, observing both halves of the allegro moderato direction. There are no problems here with repeats, either – if there are any omissions, they are minimal and I didn’t notice them – and their overall timing of 8:42 strikes me as about right: just a few seconds faster than the Mosaïques and the Juilliard Quartet. They do, however, considerably shorten the slow movement and allegro finale, as do the Amadeus Quartet. The Juilliard and Chilingirian Quartets also omit repeats in these movements, though not quite so drastically. Though this worried me less than in the case of K499, I’d still turn to the Quatuor Mosaïques for the full picture in K590. If you can live with the omissions, however – you may well think that enough is enough – the Juilliards offer a fine performance of this work: a trifle more assertive than the Americans in the opening movement, where the music can take it, and equally enjoyable in the other movements. As in the other quartets, the recording sounds fine for its age: I found the difference between the Sony ADD and the Nimbus DDD recordings to be minimal.

In summary, then, of the performances on modern instruments there is very little to choose among the versions by the Juilliard Quartet, Amadeus Quartet, Quartetto Italiano and the Chilingirian Quartet. All have their virtues, but for overall high quality of performance and recording the Chilingirians would be hard to beat: they are generally available from dealers on two single CDs at less than full price or in a 5-CD set of the last ten quartets (CRD5005, around £28).

The Amadeus and Italian recordings are currently available only as box sets – the latter in download form only or from ArkivMusic (see above). If you are looking for high-quality performances of the complete Mozart Quartets on modern instruments which still sound well, despite having been recorded some time ago, either of these will serve your purpose well – but be aware that they contain a fair amount of juvenilia.

The same is true of the two sets of performances from the American Quartet on Nimbus – early and late works are deliberately offered side-by-side on both albums. Despite my reservations about outer-movement repeats in K499 – and, indeed, elsewhere – the two sets are well worth having, especially as they are available at a reasonable price. (£16 each, post free, from Musicweb International – click the Nimbus link on the right of the web page.)

If you are looking for a 2-CD set of the last four quartets, the ArkivMusik reissue of the Juilliards makes an obvious recommendation. There’s a detailed booklet with some useful analyses of the music and the recording has worn well. I found them a touch lacking in emotional identification with the music at times by comparison with their competitors, but not sufficiently for me to deny an overall recommendation, though at $37.99 they are by no means the least expensive, when the 5-CD CRD set costs around the same – more music for your money – and the two Nimbus sets together cost little more.

My first choice, however, must reside with the period-instrument versions. Since both the Mosaïques on Naïve and the Salomons on Hyperion couple Nos.20 and 22, my overall recommendation would be to go for the less expensive Salomon recording of these (CDH55094) and supplement that with the Mosaïque Quartet’s recording of Nos.21 and 23 (E8888).

Brian Wilson

Classic accounts, well worth considering, but there are less expensive rivals, some on period instruments.