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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478 (1785) [31:01]
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493 (1786) [33:08]
Joyce Yang (piano)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. 2017, St. Stephens Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2018 [64:09]
This release, titled Apotheosis vol. 2 follows Apotheosis vol. 1 from January 2017 which has Mozart’s final string quartets (FCL2016). There is also the Alexander Quartet’s earlier ‘Homage’ programme of Mozart’s string quartets dedicated to Haydn (review). They’ve recorded much in between of course, including Schumann and Brahms quintets also recorded with pianist Joyce Yang (review), but Paul Yarbrough writes of the expanded ambitions of this quartet’s approach to Mozart’s chamber works, so it is to be hoped that there will be more from this composer in the not too distant future.
Mozart’s forward-looking Piano Quartet in G minor K.478 was written at the height of his success in Vienna and, intended for wide sales after publication for the amateur market, was found to be too technically demanding by this sector. Eric Bromberger’s booklet notes point out features of the work that one might associate more with Beethoven, summing it up as “some of the most powerful – and difficult – chamber Mozart ever composed.”
Mozart had been contracted to compose three piano quartets for Franz Anton Hoffmeister, who released the composer from his contract after the financial failure of K. 478. Mozart returned to the genre eight months on from the G-Minor quartet with the Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493, probably entertaining himself with some light relief after finishing The Marriage of Figaro. The sunny nature of the music and its key suggests a happy time for Mozart, though the work is by no means lighter in terms of its technical demands when compared with its predecessor.
Elegance and poise are words I associate with these musicians' performances of these works. These have been recorded in a fairly intimate acoustic that would be mercilessly revealing of any weakness, but each and every one of these musicians acquits themselves with aplomb. I like Joyce Yang’s subtle feel for Mozart’s dynamic shading, witty turns of phrase and lyrical lines, as well as the way she blends with the strings where the music demands.
There are of course numerous alternatives when it comes to recordings of these works. You can find period instrument versions such as the Kuijken Piano Quartet on Challenge Classics (review), but modern instrument recordings are a more honest comparison. The Fauré Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon (review) is very good, though a touch brisker and with a more brittle touch in the faster movements, making them more dramatic in the final movement of K.478 but also a touch forensic to my ears. The Beaux Arts Trio with viola player Bruno Giuranna have their classic recording, originally on Philips but now on Decca, and with all of the poetry you would expect from these distinguished players. My taste in string vibrato is more with the Alexander Quartet’s more reserved expressiveness these days however, especially in the Andante of K.478. This and their other Larghetto central movement are both slower, adding an extra whiff of profundity without becoming in any way bogged down in artificially imposed weight.
Scoring for and against others in the market can go on for a very long time, but the point here is that this Alexander Quartet recording can stand against any others that I can name, and arguably outdoes many an old favourite. The Melos Quartet with Georg Solti for instance can now be found on Decca Eloquence, but with its swooping phrases and ritenuti this now seems too Brahmsian for its own good. The Pro Arte Quartet on the same label is much better but with greater bow-to-string pressure has a different feel in the more lyrical moments. There are always positives to be found in each of these recordings, but I very much enjoy the Alexander Quartet’s consistent high quality and for the sense of delight they impart to this music, and for these and many other reasons, it would be most welcome on my desert island.