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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Three Prussian Quartets
String Quartet (No. 21) in D major, K575 (1789) [23:46]
String Quartet (No. 22) in B flat major, K589 (1790) [22:17]
String Quartet (No. 23) in F major, K590 (1790) [28:10]
Stradivari Quartet (Xiaoming Wang (violin); Sebastian Bohren (violin); Lech Antonio Wyszynski (viola); Maja Weber (cello))
rec. 2015 Reformierte Kirche, Seon, Switzerland
SOLO MUSICA SM230 [74.15]

Founded in 2007 with a concert at the Zurich Tonhalle, the Stradivari Quartet has become one of the leading Swiss chamber ensembles. As the name of the quartet suggests the players exclusively use instruments built by the famous luthier Antonio Stradivari all loaned by the Habisreutinger Foundation.

In a single evening in 1770 it seems that Mozart aged only fourteen and engaged in tour of Italy composed his first string quartet K80; a work that is really a divertimento. In 1772/73 Mozart wrote another dozen string quartets but his full creative facility was not yet evident. By 1782 he had become familiar with many of Haydn’s string quartets, in particular the set of six Russian Quartets, Op. 33. These revealed to Mozart new and extensive artistic challenges that he set out to explore with renewed enthusiasm. Many commentators feel that Mozart didn’t greatly improve the form of the string quartet that Haydn had developed but he did bring a depth of feeling that was seldom encountered in Haydn.

In 1789 aged thirty-three Mozart left Vienna for his third visit to Berlin, accompanied by Prince Carl Lichnowsky who was his occasional pupil. At the Prussian court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, a committed arts patron, commissioned Mozart to write a set of six string quartets. An ardent music-lover and a keen cellist King Wilhelm required the set of string quartets to contain substantial cello parts that bring out the cantabile quality of the instrument’s high register. It seems that Mozart actually completed only three: Nos. 21, 22 and 23 (K575, K589, K590). These became known as the Prussian String Quartets.

Throughout this set the immaculately prepared Stradivari performs with a creditable level of consistency even if I wanted a modicum of that rarely achieved sense of spontaneity. The Allegros are often spirited and cheerful contrasted with playing of a rather measured and more serious character. It feels as if these players cherish the slow movements which evince an intimacy that frequently communicates serenity. The graceful playing in the Menuettos is impressive for its judicious weight and selection of tempi.

We hear admirably committed and engaging playing and I will surely play this disc often. Nevertheless my primary recommendation goes to the 1976 recording from the Alban Berg Quartet for its vital and spontaneous feel and innate humanity. Originally released on Teldec I have the Alban Berg Quartet accounts on a Warner Classics Elatus re-issue. For those who prefer the Prussian Quartets played on period-instruments should explore the naturally fresh, eloquent and deeply felt accounts from Quatuor Mosaïques recorded in 1998/2002 on Auvidis Astrée.

Michael Cookson


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