Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Complete String Quartets
Leipzig String Quartet
rec. 1999-2017, venue not given MDG 3072066-2 [8 CDs: 528:37]
This year, the Leipzig String Quartet celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, having been founded in 1988. They've been described as "one of the towering and most versatile quartets of our time" with almost seventy recordings to their name ranging from Mozart to Cage. Their complete cycles of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and the Second Viennese School have garnered critical praise from many quarters. They've also picked up numerous awards and accolades along the way.
This Mozart String Quartet project was begun in 1999 and reached completion in 2017. The three volumes devoted to the early string quartets were the last to be recorded and are the culmination of eighteen years work. The issuing of this complete set is a fitting tribute to their thirty years. The eight CDs come in paper sleeves, enclosed in a sturdy cardboard case. The 41 page booklet in English, French and German offers a detailed discussion of the quartets which I found extremely helpful. Unusually, I could find no mention of the venues were these recordings were made, though I did discover some of the individual volumes were recorded in
the Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster.
Although the eminent writer and critic Hans Keller wrote off Mozart's early efforts in quartet writing as “on the whole quite abominable”, questioning why anyone should play them at all “and insult Mozart’s genius?”, I take a very different view. The genre was in its infant stages, and this gave the composer free range to employ his precocious creative skills. Generally the outer movements are animated, affable and intoxicating, with the slow movements generously melodic and the minuettos elegant and charming. My particular favorite is No. 3 in G major, K156, and the Leipzig players bring real zest to the opening Presto. The plaintive strains of the central Adagio provide a pleasing contrast before an assertive Tempo di Minuetto rounds off proceedings. Another one I like is No. 13 in D minor, K 173 which has an attractive opening movement, doleful in character, and a finale fugally etched. The Leipzig Quartet bring the same level of commitment, energy and enthusiasm to these early works as they do to the later masterpieces.
The six "Haydn'" Quartets are probably the best known and most popular of the composer's complete quartet oeuevre, with the "Hunt" in B-flat and the "Dissonant" in C heading the bill. They were inspired by Haydn's six Quartets Op.33, nicknamed the "Russian" quartets after their dedicatee Grand Duke Paul of Russia. Mozart composed them between December 1782 and January 1785. The set has inspired many fine recordings, and the Leipzig Quartet hold their own proudly against some fierce competition. The bold and daring modulations of No.15 in D minor, K.421 are emphasized, with darkness and melancholy successfully characterized. The opening theme of No.17 in B flat major, K.458 brings images of the hunt vividly into focus. The dissonant harmonies that usher in the first movement of K465 are cleanly etched with no blurring of edges, whilst the finale is invested with vivacity, charm and good-humour.
Mozart's last three compositions in the genre are known as the “Prussian” Quartets, after a commission from the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. The composer only completed three of a projected cycle of six. The king was an accomplished amateur cellist and Mozart accounted for this in taking the opportunity to highlight the instrument. There's a beguiling passage in the opening measures of the Larghetto of K 589, which Matthias Moosdorf phrases exquisitely. I'm also enamoured by the profiling of the instrument the engineers have struck in the balance. They've achieved similar in the the first movement of K 590, where the violin and cello indulge in an intimate dialogue. These last three quartets seem to occupy a more exalted plain than their predecessors and the Leipzig players, for me, convey this otherworldly aspect with a rarefied intensity.
It was interesting doing a head to head comparison with three other cycles I have in my collection: the Quartetto Italiano, the Hagen Quartett and the Suske Quartett, though the latter doesn't include all of the early quartets. Sound quality in all four sets is pretty impressive, with the Hagen's having the slight edge for warmth and intimacy, with the Leipzig Quartet's acoustic a tad more reverberant. In addition to the numbered string quartets, the Hagen set contains the three Divertimentos K136-8, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Five four-part fugues, K405. At the end of the day, it would be the Hagens I would take to my desert island, closely followed by the Leipzig Quartet. Stephen Greenbank
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