Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Ten Great String Quartets
The Chilingirian Quartet: Levon Chilingirian (violin I); Mark Butler (violin II); Csaba Erdelyi (viola); Philip De Groote (cello).
rec. Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London (CDs 1-3); Church of St. George the Martyr, Queen Square, London (CDs 4 & 5).
CRD 5005 [5 CDs: 286:49]
What a bargain this CD box set is: five hours of music comprising the six quartets dedicated to Papa Haydn, the Hoffmeister quartet and the three extant Prussian quartets (six were projected but the Grim Reaper intervened).
My only minor gripe about the package is that crd do not provide recording dates—the series was started in 1979, I believe—or timings for individual movements—which is surely standard practice these days. This box, however, was issued in 2001, and the omissions are of no great matter. These recordings, first issued in 1980 and 1986, represent the best of analogue and digital sound: warm, spacious but still intimate without being too reverberant or close; simply ideal.
The Chilingirians have long been one of the world's premier quartets. Their playing exudes all the concentration, homogeneity, virtuosity and joy one would hope to encounter in a performance of these masterworks. I am particularly struck by the beauty of the cello playing in the later quartets, an emphasis Mozart deliberately engineered to please the gifted amateur cello player King Friedrich Wilhelm, to whom the six were originally meant to be dedicated. The cello's sinuous, filigree passages in K580 are especially beguiling. The listener will relish the genteel battle for supremacy between the cello and the lead violin. The earlier quartets are alternately bold and playful, then restless and driven; the Chilingirians expertly encompass all the emotions required. For me, the centre of any collection of Mozart quartets will always be the "Dissonance", my favourite. It seems to me to operate within an entirely different ambit of profundity and invention than its predecessor, K464. There is a wonderful contrast between the famous discordant Adagio opening and the joyous Allegro which fairly skips along; the execution there is gossamer light. The Andante cantabile is heart-breakingly tender; the mood is poised, restrained and elegiac, the playing beautifully blended to produce the effect of a "dying fall" that this music demands. The perky, impudent Menuetto is punctuated by a surprising dramatic Trio and the lithe, fluent finale is thrilling, with its pungent minor key excursions and compelling assertiveness.
I do not mean to disparage K464 when I say that it does not reach the same heights but the Chilingirians certainly make the best case for it. The lead violinist plays throughout the opening Allegro with great verve and excellent intonation, and the Menuetto is given the gravitas the deceptively simple music demands The variations of the Andante outstay their welcome at fourteen minutes and are less than riveting but again are given every advantage. The odd, melancholy little main subject of the finale is played with the lightest touch.
There is little point in ploughing conscientiously through every one of the ten quartets here, itemising the felicities of the Chilingirians' playing of them, so I will content myself with having made a few comments about several of them and urging any waverers to acquire this lovely set.
CD 1 [59:17]
Quartet for Strings no 14 in G major, K 387 "Spring"
Quartet for Strings no 15 in D minor, K 421 (417b)
CD 2 [55:43]
Quartet for Strings no 16 in E flat major, K 428 (421b)
Quartet for Strings no 17 in B flat major, K 458 "Hunt"
CD 3 [67:40]
Quartet for Strings no 18 in A major, K 464
Quartet for Strings no 19 in C major, K 465 "Dissonance"
CD 4 [51:54]
Quartet for Strings no 20 in D major, K 499 "Hoffmeister"
Quartet for Strings no 21 in D major, K 575 “Prussian”
CD 5 [52:15]
Quartet for Strings no 22 in B flat major, K 589 “Prussian”
Quartet for Strings no 23 in F major, K 590 “Prussian”