These five CDs, all featuring premiere recordings and released within the last decade by Hungaroton, constitute the core of the Hungarian Authentic Quartet's discography. They serve as resounding testimony to the brilliance and value of period-instrument performance of music from the Classical era.
The Authentic Quartet (AQ) - this name also used in Hungarian contexts - was founded in 2002 by first violinist Zsolt Kalló. The three other founding members, Balázs Bozzai, Gábor Rác and Csilla Vályi, are ever-presents throughout this series, lending their recordings an impregnable air of authority. Whilst their repertory naturally centres on Haydn and Mozart, it also reaches out to these latter's more neglected contemporaries, in whose lives the twin towers of 18th-century Austrian music were such influential presences one way or another - as will become apparent below.
Austrian Emanuel Förster (sometimes 'Foerster') - no relation to the later and better-known Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster (or 'Förster') - counted Mozart and Haydn among his friends, and the generation-younger Beethoven among his acquaintances. He wrote around fifty string quartets, including the six of op.21. The first three of those heard on this recording, published 1802-03, are unsurprisingly reminiscent of late Haydn and early Beethoven - and no poor cousins either.
Fellow Austrian Johann Albrechtsberger wrote many works for string quartet too, but in his case almost all were as 'fugues' or 'sonatas'. Some of these have been recorded in recent times: the AQ themselves followed up the present CD with another Hungaroton release offering Albrechtsberger's six short, two-movement, fugue-based quartets published as op.16. They are interestingly paired with the even briefer Six Fugues a 4 by Gregor Werner, the Austrian Baroque composer replaced in later life at the Esterházy court at Eisenstadt by Haydn.
In fact, the three quartets of op.7 are the only ones Albrechtsberger wrote in conventional form. He is best known today for his role in the education of Beethoven on the recommendation of Haydn, who, like many, regarded him as the finest teacher of composition to be had. Yet as a composer Albrechtsberger has been routinely dismissed as a lightweight throughout the twentieth century. This view likely arises from a much-repeated but quite possibly apocryphal description by Beethoven of his teacher as a "musical pedant". Tutoring Beethoven in the 1790s, Albrechtsberger was no headstrong young man like his pupil, but a conservative, expert theorist. By comparison with Beethoven, no doubt his quartets seem rather academic, but in their own terms they are works of supreme elegance that would please non-specialist audiences as much today as they would have more than two centuries ago. The AQ's committed, idiomatic advocacy at least gives them a fair chance to be heard.
Though a Czech, Franz Krommer, born František Kramář, spent most of his life in Vienna where he established a towering international reputation as a composer. He wrote string quartets throughout his long life and the total of 76 listed by Karel Padrta in his recent thematic catalogue of the composer's works is virtually identical to Haydn's. Krommer was born when Mozart was three, though he outlived him by several decades; but as his op.7 quartets are (for him) relatively early works - his op.1 quartets were published four years earlier in 1793 - it comes as no surprise to find them reminiscent of his now much more famous contemporary's. Indeed, Krommer is said to have taught himself music theory as a boy through a study of the works of Mozart and Haydn. Published as Trois Quatuors Concertans, these are typically fine works of art and craft. Krommer's minor-key quartets were especially expressive, the E minor piece here being the literal and figurative focus of an emotionally generous programme.
Born in Hungarian Slovakia, Nikolaus Zmeskall - sometimes written with one 'l' and/or with an 'á' in his surname - was an exact contemporary of Krommer and a one-time pupil of Mozart. As a composer he barely registers nowadays, but many will instantly recognise his name as that of one of Beethoven's favourite patrons, dedicatee of the latter's op.95 String Quartet and - possibly, or perhaps not - as the titular protagonist of twentieth-century author Carl von Pidoll's music novel bearing the title (among others) 'Eroica - Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovetz's Reminiscences of Beethoven'.
By comparison with the other works considered here, Zmeskall's quartets are Romantically epic in proportion, both running to well beyond half an hour. They have a much more Beethovenian feel to them, with more spacious architecture, greater introspection and no mean degree of part-writing, all the more impressive for the fact that Zmeskall was effectively an amateur composer, his proper job being that of a high-ranking civil servant in the Hungarian court. As these are highly cultivated works in what was at the time the only monograph in existence of Zmeskall's music; and given the composer's importance to Beethoven, this is surely a must-have recording. They are played once again with great poise and feeling on the part of the AQ.
Last year, as it happens, the Slovakian label Pavlík Records brought out Zmeskall's complete extant works - 15 string quartets and a harpsichord rondo - in a 3 CD/DVD-A boxed set, performed by the newly formed Zmeskall Quartet (PA007429). The rest of Zmeskall's quartets, it should be said, are of a different kind: all shorter than fifteen minutes - many less than eight - and cast in only two contrasting movements. Remarkable miniatures they are nonetheless, sometimes reminiscent of Boccherini. They come well performed by the eponymous ensemble and, asinine musician-inhalations aside, in high-quality audio. Bought direct from the label they can be had reasonably cheaply - definitely worth consideration by anyone who has enjoyed the AQ on Hungaroton.
Austrian Joseph Wölfl (or 'Woelfl') was born latest of the five composers under review. An early death robbed him of the chance to establish himself as a progressive. On the other hand, as a former pupil of both Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn, he was, it is fair to say, a master craftsman with a good deal of expressive imagination, as these three of his twelve string quartets show. The lovely middle movement of the C major, as a case in point, would grace any composer's body of works. Wölfl was once a highly popular, much-praised composer, but his reputation waned quickly after his death. In recent years there have been signs of a revival, with recordings of important works like the piano concertos, symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets. These have emanated from Harmonia Mundi, CPO, Caro Mitis/Essential Classics and others. There’s also been the recent publication of a thematic catalogue of works by the Austrian pianist Margit Haider-Dechant. The present disc must be seen as a centrepiece of any revival. These are lustrous performances by the AQ, bristling with natural warmth, style and good humour. They do full credit to Wölfl's immensely attractive Mozart-meets-Schubert writing.
Indeed, whether more Romantically or Classically engaged, the AQ perform always with great acuity, communicative conviction and technical accuracy. They have made every one of these recordings memorable and worthy of the attention of all fans of the string quartet genre. No one wary of the 'period instrument' label should hesitate either. The AQ's have particularly rounded tones that complement the slightly lowered concert pitch (A430).
Hungaroton's sound quality in every instance is practically immaculate. Quartet players have an innate ability to inhale with extravagance; none more so than certain illustrious compatriots of the AQ. Hungaroton's engineers have managed to place microphones so that the players' breathing here is restricted for pick-up purposes to the odd quick sniff and thus does not leech into the fabric of the music. The accompanying booklets are of more variable quality, translations into English (by non-natives) sometimes alighting on the wrong register ("he got acquainted with the 22-year-old Beethoven at Prince Karl Lichnowsky's place"!) and even flirting with incoherence on occasion. This is not universally the case - the Förster booklet, for example, is first-rate.
Finally, a review of the AQ's most recent release, demonstrating the group's ability to reach with ease well beyond its core repertory, can be found here
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