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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, K478 [29:38]
Piano Quartet No 2 in E-flat, K493 [33:17]
Paul Lewis (piano)
Leopold String Trio
rec. December 2002, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk. DDD.
Reviewed as 20/44.1 download with pdf booklet from
HYPERION CDA67373 [62:59]

I first came across these pieces as a young music student when I was asked to run through the piano part with three of my string-playing contemporaries. Not knowing the works at the time, my immediate thought was to the effect that I really didn’t need to look at the music before the first rehearsal. I believed that I could easily read this stuff at sight! What a surprise was in store for me. Fumbling through the difficult semiquaver passages, I soon realised that this was virtuosic music of the highest order. No wonder the Viennese publisher Hoffmeister cancelled his original request for three works after the first performance of the first quartet, which he claimed was really difficult for the audience to understand, let alone for the players to perform. Today there seems to be no problem in comprehending the dramatic and explosive nature of the first movement with its arresting unison opening for all four players. But in 1785 such moods and feelings were unexpected in the fairly rare, and only recently conceived medium of the piano quartet.

This is certainly not music for amateurs to play, but amateurs were the players to whom Hoffmeister was hoping to sell the music. The casual listener senses that the difficult passagework in the fast movements consists just of simple scales and arpeggios, but unfortunately for the player these are mixed up with numerous awkward melodic intervals. Particularly difficult to negotiate are many such passages in the Allegretto third movement of the second quartet in E-flat. Woe betide any pianist who begins too quickly because the opening theme seems so simple. The player must be sure to know the difficulties he will face later in the movement before he starts his musical journey! However, hearing these works played by Paul Lewis and the Leopold String Trio, it all seems to flow along so easily that you would think that this music presented no technical problems at all!

The dark and tragic mood of the G minor first quartet is established from the start. Following the opening statement, a short and dramatic theme in G minor, the pianist answers with a reflective and sad descending scalic melody. Right from the start the players transport us into Mozart’s sound world with unerring style and conviction. There is plenty of opportunity for sensitive phrasing in the ensuing, beautiful melodies, each of which has its own personality. The articulation, ensemble playing and intonation are always immaculate. The players convey the wide-ranging moods and emotions of this movement with faultless attention to detail, but at the same time having an overview of this lengthy piece. Sometimes it seems like an entire operatic sound world of emotions is present in this single movement.

The second movement Andante transports us into yet another arena of expressive possibilities. At the beginning, Paul Lewis explores this serene music with beautifully sensitive and thoughtful playing, well matched by the refined string playing that follows. In the Rondeau finale I was very impressed with the ensemble playing as a whole. There are many quite lengthy fast passages where the string instruments play in octaves, and I wondered how long they had to practise these sections in order to achieve such perfect intonation. The players very effectively heighten the drama in the final and exciting return of the main theme. The music builds towards a grand climax, when, just as you are expecting the closing chords in G major, Mozart unexpectedly lurches into a fairly remote key. This catches us all by surprise, giving us a jarring jolt before returning us home to G major.

The second quartet in E-flat major is a very different affair. Grand and ebullient in spirit with a jovial conclusion, the work is nevertheless equally as enjoyable as the first quartet, and provides a good contrast when the two are presented together on a disc like this one. The second movement Larghetto is serene and enchanting, played with extraordinary sensitivity to melodic shaping, attention to detail, and balance. The warmth of the piano tone here is especially impressive. When the string trio has the melodic material, sometimes with gentle counterpoint, Paul Lewis plays the demisemiquaver accompanying passages delicately in the background, but these are always crystal clear and expressively articulated, complementing the main themes.

In these works, balance between strings and piano has clearly been meticulously and carefully prepared and refined. There are some great recordings from the past out there, particularly Clifford Curzon and the Amadeus on Decca (4259602, download only), and another favourite of mine, which can still be found with a bit of searching, is from Christian Zacharias, formerly on EMI Classics (Warner Encore 5758742, download only). However, these don’t match this current version from Hyperion which is so beautifully recorded. It is hard to imagine that these works will ever be played and recorded better than this.

Geoffrey Molyneux

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