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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Apotheosis vol.1: The Final Quartets
String Quartet No.20 in D, K499 (‘Hoffmeister’) (1786) [28:01]
String Quartet No.21 in D, K575 (‘Prussian’ No.1) (1789) [23:13]
String Quartet No.22 in B-flat, K589 (‘Prussian’ No.2) (1789/90) [23:27]
String Quartet No.23 in F, K590 (‘Prussian’ No.3) (1789/90) [27:23]
The Alexander String Quartet
rec. 2017, St. Stephens Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA
FOGHORN CLASSICS FCL2016 [51:14 + 50:50]

For some odd reason I reviewed volume 2 of the Alexander Quartet’s ‘Apotheosis’ Mozart releases before this first volume, but the ‘elegance and poise’ found in the Piano Quartets is very much in evidence here, as one might expect. Eric Brombergerīs fulsome booklet notes point out the in-between nature of K499, with the remainder forming a more convincing ‘final three’ of a planned but never completed set of six. In any case Mozart, while financially straitened, was still relatively young and ambitious in 1790. We shouldn’t really be looking at these as valedictory final statements, and while there is inevitably some darkness and stress here and there in the music these are all entertainingly brilliant works – Mozart at his chamber-music best.

The Alexander Quartet begins with a relatively relaxed sounding tempo to the opening movement of the String Quartet No.20, its almost pastoral sound allowing us to hear plenty of the inner voices and conversational quality in Mozartīs writing. There is a transparency in the playing and recording throughout this set which has a welcoming character that is both superficially attractive and always rewards ever-closer listening. This may have something to do with the matched quality of the instruments played here, all built by Francis Kuttner in 1987 and known as the Ellen M. Egger quartet of instruments, a collection loaned to promising students but brought together for special concerts. They were also used for the Alexander Quartet’s second Beethoven cycle (review). The balance between presence and acoustic is very good in this recording, with a convincing and nicely wide stereo spread.

While the Alexander Quartet exudes enjoyable refinement and restrained poise there is also plenty of drama and excitement present. The final movement of K499 is bracingly vital, and the opening Allegretto of K575 has a wide-ranging and dynamic pungency. These quartets all have unexpected developments and sometimes stormy changes of character, and the Alexander Quartet players are all highly responsive to everything Mozart has in store for them.

Collections of Mozart’s ‘last four string quartets’ have appeared before, though this collection is more likely to be found amongst complete editions than as they do here. The Chilingirian Quartet’s recordings for the CRD label are rather nice but the CDs are no longer in print. The Naxos label has the Éder Quartet with these works spread amongst its rather good complete edition, though the sound here is a little more distant and generalised than some. Brian Wilsonīs review of the Juilliard Quartet in 1974 also provides a wide reference of alternatives, including period instrument recordings. Iīve left these aside in this case, focussing on īmodernī quartet recordings. I’ll admit to not being very keen on the Juilliard Quartet’s now vintage recording. The sound is rather on the dry side, and all that heavy vibrato rubs my brain up the wrong way. Complete editions including that by the Hagen Quartett on Deutsche Grammophon are very fine indeed, The Hagens being a bit more wiry in sound and urgent in terms of tempi, but with nicely nuanced dynamics and deeply expressive phrasing. Iīm missing out swathes of recordings, but the Amadeus Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon always deserves a mention. Their tight vibrato can sound a little dated now though the recordings still sound fresh and lively, and there are plenty of surprises in performances which to some have become legendary, and to others now rather past their prime. There are any number of single-disc releases of the last three ‘Prussian Quartets’. The Stradivari Quartet (review) is more delicate and precious with these works than the Alexander Quartet, who project a more up-front baseline dynamic while still keeping everything nicely in proportion. This might have something to do with a more distant recording for the Stradivari Quartet, which has excellent all-round performances but which I ultimately didn’t prefer. The Engegård Quartet on Lawo Classics (review) is indeed ‘spirited’, but with thinner sound and on occasion speeding through movements as if they have a bus to catch I didn’t really warm to these brisk readings.

As ever with Mozart there is no such thing as a perfect performance. Each recording has its own individual qualities, and it is up to each individual as to what kind of approach they will prefer. I have very much enjoyed the Alexander Quartet’s deeply humane performances in this fine recording, and would recommend it wholeheartedly even in such a crowded market.

Dominy Clements

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