Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
String Quartet No. 4 in C major, K157
String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, K159
String Quartet No. 7 in E flat major, K160
String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K465
rec. 2020/21, B-Sharp Studio, Berlin
Booklet with commentary in English and German included
CAVI-MUSIC 8553205 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed six concise, three-movement string quartets (K. 155-160), three of which (K. 157, 159, and 160) are on this CD, during his third journey to Italy from late 1772 to early 1773. Mozart’s father, Leopold, reported in a letter on 28 October 1772 that the young Wolfgang was writing a quartet out of boredom while they were in Bozen. The C Major quartet (K. 157) has themes that resemble the opera Lucio Silla, composed around the same time, particularly in the second movement Andante, which sounds like Giunia’s C-minor cavatina. Traces of wistfulness within the overall serenity of the B-flat Major quartet (K. 159) imply that Mozart was struggling to say more than his limited experience with the quartet genre enabled him to express. Likewise, a minor episode in the E-flat Major quartet (K. 160) suggests turbulence beneath the light-hearted atmosphere.
On 15 January and 12 February 1785, Mozart held two private string-quartet concerts at his apartment in Vienna. Franz Joseph Haydn attended both evenings and praised Mozart’s new compositions, especially the C Major quartet K. 465. After the concert on 12 February, Haydn told Leopold Mozart: ‘I tell you before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know in person and by name; he has taste, and moreover the greatest knowledge of composition’. The influence of Haydn, the quartet’s dedicatee, is evident in the structure: the first movement Adagio - Allegro has a slow introduction followed by an almost exuberant exposition; the Andante cantabile second movement conveys pensiveness; the Menuetto has a degree of seriousness that compels full concentration and renders it danceable only in theory; the Allegro molto finale combines mirth and profundity.
The Armida Quartett’s series of Mozart’s string quartets employs an Urtext Edition, which is a collaborative project between the ensemble and the publisher, G. Henle Verlag. In addition to textual considerations, the performances reflect ‘period’ style, which eschews vibrato in favour of crisp articulation. This disc, the fourth instalment, suggests that the cycle could become a leading choice because the musicians follow the autograph texts and convey a sense of discovery in their performances of these well-known works. Rather than juxtaposing K. 465 with quartets from twelve years earlier, a collection in chronological order would show Mozart’s developmental process.
Among cycles of the string quartets, the Hagen Quartett (Deutsche Grammophon 4776253), recorded between 1988 and 2004, offers one of the most complete surveys of this repertoire, including divertimenti, serenades, and Mozart’s arrangements of ‘Five Four-Part Fugues’ from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, 2. Teil, K. 405. The Hagen players exude warmth and, at times, sheer joy in their performances. One advantage to Armida’s recordings is the improved sound quality; a slight harshness in parts of the Hagen set makes me wish that the original digital masters could be remixed. Quartetto Italiano’s cycle (Decca: 028947855552), which dates from 1967 to 1973, provides a consistently satisfying listening experience because relaxed tempos reveal the music’s complexity. The Italiano set does not include the divertimenti, the serenades, or the Bach settings, however.
The presentation by Avi Music – a glossy cardboard gatefold cover with the CD on a plastic tray glued inside – warrants improvement. The booklet contains an informative essay in German with an English translation, but it can fall out from the slit in the inside of the sleeve. I hope when the cycle is complete that Avi will issue the set in a clamshell box with the CDs in individual cardboard sleeves and a booklet comprising the commentary from each release in the series.