Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Flute Quartet in D major, K285 [14:16]
Flute Quartet in G major, K285a [9:26]
Flute Quartet in C major, K285b [17:35]
Flute Quartet in A major, K298 [12:07]
Aurèle Nicolet (flute)
Munich String Trio [Ana Chumachenco (violin), Oscar Lysy (viola), Walter Nothas (cello)]
rec. Phonag Tonstudio, Lindau, Switzerland, 1978
TUDOR 7501 [53:45]
For someone who affected not to like the flute, Mozart wrote quite a lot of good music for it: a concerto (plus a flute arrangement of his Oboe Concerto), a sinfonia concertante with harp and three-and-a-bit quartets. Most of it was intended for the wealthy amateur flautist Ferdinand de Jean, a Dutch East India Company employee, who actually wanted three concertos. I imagine the reissue of these almost 40-year-old recordings was occasioned by the death last year of Aurèle Nicolet.
He was one of the most sympathetic characters among the plethora of flautists, many of them pupils of Marcel Moyse, who emerged after World War II. Born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, on 22 January 1926, Nicolet studied flute with André Jaunet and theory with Willy Burckhard in Zurich, then during the war had the great good fortune to be taught by Moyse, who spent the years after the fall of France at St Amour in the Jura. Having had his first lessons from Moyse in a Geneva café, Nicolet attended the conservatoire at La Chaux de Fonds, where the Frenchman had a class. When the war ended he entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying first with Gaston Crunelle and Yvonne Drappier, then transferring to Moyse’s class when the latter finally returned for a time before emigrating in disgust. Nicolet kept in touch with Moyse for the rest of the master’s life and was considered his major pupil. While still a student he played in the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra; he won the Concours de Genève in 1948 and also worked in Winterthur. In 1950, with Wilhelm Furtwängler’s support, he became principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic (many sources, including the English note in the booklet with this CD, claim that the conductor appointed him, but as we know from the fracas over Sabine Meyer and Karajan, it is the BPO players who run the orchestra). Nicolet stayed in Berlin for nine years, teaching there from 1952 to 1965 and also heading a famous masterclass in Freiburg until 1981. It was in Freiburg that he died, a week after his ninetieth birthday.
It is no surprise to find him collaborating with Munich-based musicians, as he had many friends in that city. One of his closest collaborations was with Karl Richter – he gave the oration at Richter’s funeral. His colleagues here include members of two famous string-playing families. Born in Italy of Ukrainian and German descent, Ana Chumacenco – like her brother Nicolas – studied first with their father, an Auer pupil. She then worked in Buenos Aires with Ljerko Spiller until she was 18, when she returned to Europe and won prizes in several major competitions. Today she is best known as a teacher, in Kronberg and Munich. Oscar Lysy, brother of the violinist Alberto, was born in Argentina and also studied with Spiller, before continuing with Umberto Carfi and in Switzerland with Georges Janzer. He was a member of the Bavarian Radio SO for some time, as was Walter Nothas, a pupil of André Navarra and Pablo Casals and himself a well-known teacher. I mention these things because there is nothing about these distinguished artists in the CD booklet, although there is a very nice photo of the trio.
I imagine the players decided the ordering of the works on the disc. They begin with the C major, originally thought to have been written in Mannheim in 1777-78 like the D major and G major. Mozart scholars long doubted its origins, but relatively recently a sketch of part of the first movement in the composer’s hand turned up, so it appears that the Allegro is authentic, even if another person had to complete it. The Andantino is a set of variations, virtually the same as the variation sixth movement of the Gran Partita for 13 winds, K361 (in the third variation of the Flute Quartet score you get more repeats). At first it was thought to be the original version of the wind variations, but it is now considered an arrangement by an expert professional – probably asked to carry out this task by Heinrich Philipp Carl Bosler, who published the Quartet in 1788 (I am grateful to Roger Hellyer’s note in The Compleat Mozart for this information). The players make quite a firm statement with the first phrase of the Allegro, adopting a nice tempo, and it quickly becomes apparent that the string players know how to alternate tact and assertion. The variations are lovingly played, after a pleasing statement of the theme, and I do not miss the greater weight and variety of the wind-band version. The editors of the Köchel catalogue have relegated this work to the Anhalt, with the number K. Anh. 171, but good players always make it sound like a masterpiece – and that is what we get here.
The G major Quartet, also in two movements, is quite modest – Dr Hellyer draws comparisons with the chamber music of J. C. Bach, a major influence on Mozart. Again the musicians make quite a firm statement at the start of the Andante and there is lovely interplay between Nicolet and the strings. The Minuet, with a contrasting central section rather than a formal Trio, is delightfully done.
It used to be thought that the three-movement A major Quartet was contemporary with the Mannheim pieces, but we now know it was written in Vienna almost a decade later, in late 1786 or 1787: Dr Hellyer suggests it was for domestic music-making at the home of Mozart’s Viennese friend Gottfried von Jacquin. The theme of the opening variations – based on Franz Anton Hoffmeister’s song An die Natur, to words by Wilhelm Gottfried Becker – is firmly yet sensitively delineated and the players introduce dynamic variation into the repeats, something they do throughout these performances. The Minuet probably caused mirth at Jacquin’s as it is based on an old French rondeau which translates as ‘He has some boots, has Bastien’. It is played here at an ideal tempo with subtle rhythm: the Trio is delectable. More laughs come with the finale, which Mozart heads ‘Rondieaoux / Allegretto grazioso, mà non troppo presto, però non troppo adagio. Così – così – con molto garbo ed espressione’. Based on an aria from Paisiello’s opera Le gare generose, which was first performed in Vienna on 1 September 1786, it is beautifully played, with a light touch.
The D major Quartet is a superb miniature masterpiece, although like so much of Mozart’s music it took a while to become well known. in 1935 Fritz Busch wrote to his brother Adolf: ‘Do you know a Mozart quartet for flute, violin, viola and cello in D major? It is something especially beautiful.’ He had clearly come across K285 for the first time. Adolf Busch, who played more Mozart than any other violinist of his era, probably knew of it but had not performed it. A year later he and Marcel Moyse gave two performances in Italy with brother Herman Busch, cello, and Karl Doktor, viola, both members of his Quartet. Another French flautist, René le Roy, recorded it for the NGS with members of the International Quartet, and later did K298 for HMV with the Pasquier Trio, but that was the extent of the pre-war recording interest. It was with the coming of the LP disc that the Flute Quartets found their place in the scheme of things, although Nicolet’s first recording was just K298, on a Columbia disc with other Mozart works for winds and strings. Nowadays K285 is recognised as one of Mozart’s most popular chamber works, a little gem with memorable themes perfectly put together. One thing I like about the performance under review is the tempo for the initial Allegro, not too fast – Rampal in particular used to rush it off its feet. Nicolet and his colleagues find room for subtle dynamic variations. The flautist produces a gorgeous tone and splendid legato for the Adagio, against characterful pizzicati from the strings. Mozart teases us by letting us think the Rondo is almost upon us, then holding it back with another few phrases of the Adagio. When the witty Rondo does arrive, the players once again do not rush it: the marking is Allegretto, after all. They make the most of all the humorous moments and there is further enjoyable interplay between flute and strings.
The recordings are excellent overall and the tape has survived quite well: there are one or two patches of tremulousness in the string tone, but it is very slight and does not affect the flute’s sound. Sometimes when the players drop down to pianissimo they seem farther away, a phenomenon I have encountered with other recordings – I am not technically minded enough to explain it. None of these tiny niggles affects my enjoyment of these fine performances. Of course there are many competitors, including a digital disc by Nicolet with the Mozart String Trio on Denon. Many people like William Bennett with the Grumiaux Trio. The most beautiful piece of flute playing I ever heard was by Bennett, in a performance of Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune with the LSO under Markevitch; but I do not like the Philips recording for his Flute Quartets, which emphasises the breathiness of his tone, nor do I find the readings especially illuminating. I enjoy the late 1970s interpretations of Richard Adeney and fellow Melos Ensemble members Hugh Maguire, Cecil Aronowitz and Terence Weil (the most recent issue, on a Resonance CD, does not name the string players); and the digital Claves recording by Peter-Lukas Graf, another Moyse pupil, and members of the Carmina Quartet. A good up-to-date recording is that by Emmanuel Pahud, a Nicolet pupil, with Christoph Poppen, Hariolf Schlichtig and Jean Guihen Queyras, on EMI/Warner: it comes with an essay by Roger Hellyer. Rightly or wrongly, I get the feeling that the players on this new Tudor reissue knew each other well, rather than representing a shotgun marriage for the studio, and I value that.