The Alexander String Quartet manages a double-act of time travel in their Mozart set. Aside from the trip back to Mozart’s day, they also offer a performing style that brings to mind some of the great string quartets of the early stereo era. The Alexanders don’t play with eighteenth-century strings or bows, and they don’t make reference to the now-stylish “period performance” movement. These are resolutely romantic performances, with a goal of being just as gorgeous, elegant, and glamorous as can be ... and boy, do they succeed.
If you can imagine having an intimate dinner party in the opulent surroundings of Schloss Schönbrunn, with everyone dressed in elaborate velvety things and the walls papered in deep, rich colours, the way that image looks is the way these performances sound. The Alexanders are a luxury string quartet: big, rich, impeccably tuned instrumental sound. The flowing slow movement of K428 feels like its nine minutes are exhaled in one deep breath. The same quartet’s first few seconds aren’t played eccentrically, and the quartet doesn’t draw attention to them, but somehow those few seconds, before the piece resolves into the key of E flat, are especially surprising.
The minuet in the “Hunt” quartet is laid-back and Haydnesque; indeed, the shadow of Haydn hovers over all this music, thanks to both composer and performers. Quartet No. 14 has a minuet as long as the first movement — in this performance — and it manages a tricky blend of off-beat syncopations and stately elegance.
These recordings, certainly, are not for everyone: if your taste runs toward the more energetic, rustic, sharply-edged interpretations of period-instrument groups like the Quatuor Mosaïques, you will be disappointed. Also try the Quatuor Cambini-Paris, who play sensitively but energetically and with next to no vibrato, on modern instruments. The Alexanders are energized, to be sure, and their big dynamic range ensures they aren’t boring. Having said that, I do think the first three movements of No. 14 are a little too low-powered and moderate. To use an analogy, they’re more Josef Krips or Karl Böhm than they are Nikolaus Harnoncourt or John Eliot Gardiner.
Magnificent sound quality from award-hoarding producer Judith Sherman, although this release is from the time before Foghorn Classics caved in to good sense and stopped putting actual foghorn sounds at the ends of their discs. Still, there’s plenty of time for you to reach the CD player and turn it off. I guess the foghorn is there in case you’re caught napping, although, given the high quality of these performances and the immediate presence of the recording, napping is not something you’re likely to be doing.
String Quartet No. 14 in G, K387 [29:48]
String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K421 [31:56]
String Quartet No. 16 in E flat, K428 [28:51]
String Quartet No. 17 in B flat, K458, “Hunt” [27:09]
String Quartet No. 18 in A, K464 [32:41]
String Quartet No. 19 in C, K465 “Dissonant” [33:34]