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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
String Quartet in D, K.575 (1789) [25:12]
String Quartet in B flat, K.589 (1789) [23:47]
String Quartet in F, K.590 (1790) [27:30]
Tokyo String Quartet
rec. 2004, Sprague Hall, Yale University
BIDDULPH 80215-2 [76:29]

The Tokyo Quartet has always been among the finest ensembles in the world, maintaining its reputation and style irrespective of personnel changes. Here only one of the founder-members remains – viola-player Kazuhide Isomura - though Kikuei Ikeda has played second violin for nearly half a lifetime, since 1974.

These performances are so beautiful that the main impression is of extreme comfort, a quality which sometimes approaches blandness. One should be happy to live with this CD. The lack of eccentricities means that the performances will stand repeated listening, yet something is missing here. It is only when I turned to other performances – or more specifically – those of the Hagen on DG, that it became obvious. The Hagen dig more deeply, finding a restlessness, occasional humour and generally a wider range of characterisation. The Tokyo's mellifluous approach, with its superb sense of balance (in every sense), does mean a sacrifice in drama and a lack of eventfulness. A more searching, risk-taking approach, with contrasts more marked, I find preferable, though many will be perfectly happy. A number of Mozart's late works – such as the Clarinet Concerto - have a special purity and serenity, but few of the major works including the last quartets and symphonies are short of drama. The Hagen Quartet reveal this operatic quality which so often colours Mozart's instrumental music, embracing turbulence and wit. Temperament is perhaps the single word which expresses what I mean. At the beginning of the Larghetto of K.590 they make a clear difference between the quavers at the beginning and the ones (from bar 5) marked staccato. The contrast may be a little surprising, but as the movement unfolds this interpretation, in the context of a more flowing tempo, seems perfect. In the finale of the same work, the Tokyo's performance is fluent, whereas the Hagen bring more subtlety and phrasing, even within the ubiquitous and technically demanding semiquaver passages. Just listen to the way the C sharp quaver in the melody (end of bar 2 and thereafter) is minutely shaped, or turned, for instance. Again, the tongue-twisting semiquaver passage which begins the development section, and which (on the viola) has the last word, sounds crazier. To me these are examples of the special quality which imagination and a wider sense of Mozart's formidable expressive range, can produce.

There are times when the Tokyo players show more muscle, but I wish these were more often. To compare one point in K.590 with the Quatuor Mosaïques (on Auvidis) - from the third bar of the Allegro moderato's development section, the first violin's four-note phrases should, to my mind, sound a little disorientated following the surprising unison. Here the Mosaïques convey this - the element of strangeness and modernity. Equally, the Hagen create an air of mystery and expectancy at this point.

These days a new, outstanding quartet appears with such regularity that we have an embarrassment of riches. We may stop and think back to the days when the Amadeus Quartet was in a class of its own. Nowadays we might think (unwisely) of the Amadeus as rather passé, but if we return to their performances of these wonderful Mozart quartets we may be surprised. Over-Romantic? - too smooth? - I don't think so. At times one may feel that they loved the music too much, but I was surprised by the edginess and bite which they were prepared to bring to these works.

I apologise for possibly spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing performances other than those by the Tokyo. This is merely to illustrate the qualities which I think they miss. We have been reminded by the early music movement – especially musicians of Harnoncourt's stature – that audiences of Mozart's own day often found his music disturbing, emotionally restless. However, finally, I have to emphasise that there is much enjoyment to be had from the very fine playing on this disc, which for many will represent the finest in Mozart performance.

As you can see from the date, this is not a new recording, nor is it a matter of Biddulph hanging on to it for more than a decade, as it was originally released and reviewed on these pages in 2005. This is a reissue, with the same cover and catalogue number.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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