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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor K478 (1785) [30:11]
Piano Quartet No. 2 in E Flat Major K493 (1786) [37:21]
Finghin Collins (piano), Rosanne Philippens (violin), Máté Szücs (viola), István Várdai (cello)
rec. 2019, St. Peter’s Church of Ireland, Drogheda, Ireland.
CLAVES CD3002 [67:41]

In positively reviewing the Kuijken Piano Quartet (Challenge Classics) Robert Beattie explains the origins of these works which are still not as popular as they deserve to be.

Mozart received a commission for three quartets in 1785 from the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. When Mozart presented him with the G Minor Piano Quartet, Hoffmeister determined that the work was too difficult and the general public would not buy it, so he released Mozart from his obligation. The disgruntled Mozart responded, “Then I will write nothing more, and grow hungry or maybe the devil take me!”

Fortunately for posterity, Mozart was undeterred and produced the second Piano Quartet in E Flat nine months later. The G Minor Piano Quartet is the first major work composed for these instrumental forces in the chamber music repertoire; one of the later successful proponents of this combination was Brahms, who wrote three; I’m also very fond of the Schumann. These works for piano and string trio were written around the same time as each other and were not originally a great success. In 1785 most audiences wanted pretty, melodic music. Fourteen years ago, I suggested that things had not changed much. There have been a few very good performances on record. The groundbreaking and superb Curzon and Amadeus quartet on Decca's 1952 LP still stands up well. It can be found in a Curzon Complete Decca set and also the excellent The Decca Sound-The Mono Years box. When I played the first movement of K 478 to a local recorded music society last year, there were positive comments about the recording but also that the music belies the concept of Mozart producing “pretty” music. The Amadeus Quartet also recorded them with that fine Mozartian Walter Klien in 1981; it’s in the complete box of DG recordings and also as a costly Japanese import. There are fine recordings too by the augmented Beaux Arts Trio (Philips) and in 2006, I reviewed the Fauré Quartet (DG) with some reservations concerning the first work. One disc that intrigues is that featuring the unique Daniel Barenboim and his son Michael on violin; it’s on DG but does not seem to have been reviewed.

Some background to the performers seems in order. Finghin Collins was born in Dublin in 1977 and, following initial lessons with his sister Mary, studied piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music with John O'Conor and at the Geneva Conservatoire with Dominique Merlet. His international career was launched by winning first prize at the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Switzerland in 1999. He has performed in recital and with major orchestras throughout Europe and the United States, as well in the Far East and Australia. In October 2017, the National University of Ireland conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Music. Over the past decade Collins has developed a close relationship with Claves Records in Switzerland, recording many award-winning CDs of music by Schumann and Stanford, the latter reviewed by Christopher Howell. Finghin Collins has been Artistic Director of Music for Galway since 2013 and is also the founding Artistic Director of the New Ross Piano Festival. He is also co-Artistic Director and founder of the International Master Course at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

Rosanne Philippens is in high demand across her native Netherlands and performs both as soloist and chamber musician. She has had two of her CDs reviewed by MWI, including one called Dedications.

Máté Szücs, who records for Linn Records, was a first-prize winner on viola at the International Violin and Viola Competition in Ličge, Belgium. He was also a finalist at the International Viola Competition 'Jean Françaix' in Paris and laureate of the International Music Competition 'Tenuto' in Brussels.

István Várdai balances performing wide-ranging concerto repertoire with a deep love of chamber music. He has collaborated with partners including András Schiff, Yuri Bashmet, Gidon Kremer, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Mischa Maisky.

The K478 Quartet begins powerfully with a strident Allegro. Collins and his colleagues are well up to the task and integrate very well, helped by excellent sound. All four musicians are equal, as they should be. The music is sublime, making it even more remarkable that Hoffmeister thought it unlikely to appeal to the public; it clearly does to the performers. The second movement Larghetto is one of those heartfelt slow movements that Mozart excelled in. The empathy shown by the strings to the piano is most striking and affective. Like all great chamber music, the listener feels as if eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. There is a force evident throughout; no hint of Dresden China. The finale, Rondo Andante Cantabile is one of Mozart’s uplifting creations and is played with just the right amount of classical good manners and dance. This, nevertheless, retains an inner strength.

The G Minor Piano Quartet K493 shows progress in composition from nine months earlier. Its melody doesn’t disguise a hint of melancholy and again the players integrate effortlessly with the piano. The reverberations, as the movement develops, are very exciting and yet constantly the momentum slows in the manner so familiar from his later piano concertos. The Andante emanates singingly and the instrumental interplay is very effective. The depth of this work comes through clearly and perhaps its subtlety is a reason why some are put off; difficult, as it is, to fully comprehend in the face of such a performance. The Rondo bounces along in style and perhaps, as mentioned previously, there is some anticipation of later works such as The Magic Flute. Being Mozart it is never unfettered joy; there are always hints of a darker side but the players clearly enjoy the music. There’s certainly humour present as the work is brought to a fine conclusion.

I enjoyed these performances of two enchanting works very much indeed and the recording is ideal for chamber music. Comparisons are very difficult but this set will certainly be to hand when I want a fresh approach. There are good detailed notes by Pat O’Kelly on the musical background and brief biographies of the players. All in all, a great success.

David R Dunsmore

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