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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet in E flat major, No. 16 K428 (1783) [27:25]
String Quartet in A major, No. 18 K464 ‘Drum’ (1785) [31.30]
Fragment of a final movement (Rondo) (1785)
For a quartet in A major, K. Anh. 72c (464a) [4:17]
Emerson Quartet
rec. 1989, Plenarsaal Akademie der Wissenschaften, Munich (K428); 1991, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York (K464)
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 439 914-2 [63:23]

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Emersons recorded to acclaim all six of the ‘Haydn Quartets’, of which two are presented here on a single CD reissued under licence by Presto. Neither No. 16 nor N0. 18 has quite the popularity of the “Hunt” or the “Dissonance” – the last and greatest of them all - but in England the latter acquired the sobriquet “Drum” because in the last variation of the third movement the cello plays a “rat-a-tat” staccato figure which supposedly imitates the sound of timpani.

The repeats in the first two movements of K428 and the first and last of K464 are not taken here; my Mozart-loving friends are divided on whether or not that is desirable and I have decided not to become exercised about whatever choice an ensemble makes, as I do not mind hearing such lovely music twice but conversely do not feel that the structure of a movement is so adversely affected by omission of repeats.

As always in these quartets, following Haydn’s structural lead the slow movements form their emotional heart; the sweet tone and impeccable intonation of the Emersons serve them ideally. They maintain a pulse with an underlying momentum so that the music is never saccharine or indulgent. The dance movements are light and sprung and nothing is overloaded; the finale of K428 is thistledown light. Their homogeneity of tone and rhythm is remarkable but of course they had already been together for fifteen years or so before these recordings, so play as one.

The thematically simple opening of K464 first creates an image of conventional Haydnesque sunniness but Mozart’s complex exploitation of counterpoint soon dispels that illusion. The Menuetto is not taken too fast and has a kind of limping lilt to it which preserves its rustic charm – and again, simplicity is the key, as the movement is built upon such spare thematic material. The more elaborate variations of the third movement require a kind of singing or songful manner amply supplied by the quartet’s graceful, fluid, playing. The finale is fleet and bitter-sweet, centring on one chromatically falling, four-note figure; the Emersons’ virtuosity here is striking – yet the gentleness of the abrupt, fading conclusion is almost apologetic – another touch of Mozartian genius.

Beautifully crafted and impeccably played as they are here, I do not think that any of the music in these two quartets apart from the finale of No. 18 equals that of the greatest of the last ten but they could not receive more persuasive advocacy than in this recording.

The bonus is the alternately scampering and lyrical Rondo, possibly intended as the conclusion to K464 until Mozart thought better of it and abandoned it at a crucial point in the development section, never to return and leaving any resolution hanging in mid-air – a tantalising riddle and very enjoyable music up to that sudden rupture.

The digital sound is ideally full and balanced throughout. While these works are hardly poorly represented in the catalogue, it is easy to hear why Presto have resurrected these classic accounts of them.

Ralph Moore

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