Mozart quartets v5 8553496
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
String Quartets - Volume 5
No. 11 in E flat major, K171
No. 13 in D minor, K.173
No. 15 in D Minor, K. 421
No. 3 in G major, K156
No. 5 in F major, K158
No. 10 in C major, K170
No. 16 in E flat, K428
Armida Quartett
rec. 2019/2020, B-Sharp Studio, Berlin, Germany
Booklet with commentary in English and German included
AVI MUSIC 8553496 [2 CDs: 126]

Having reviewed the fourth volume in this compelling series of string quartets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I am delighted to savour the fifth instalment. Qualities that characterise the Armida Quartett’s performances include minimal vibrato, razor-sharp articulation, and a sense of vivacity that makes these often-recorded quartets sound as though they are being performed ‘live’ with each repeated listening. One explanation for the feeling of freshness that pervades these recordings is the Urtext Edition, a collaborative project between the members of Armida and the publisher, G. Henle Verlag.

While in Italy for the third and final time (October 1772 to March 1773), Mozart composed six three-movement string quartets (K. 155-160), two of which (K. 156 and 158) are in this set. The sixteen/seventeen-year-old Mozart was well in command of the genre, even if he had not yet reached the level of mastery that characterises contemporaneous quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn. The G Major quartet, K. 156, is buoyant in the opening Presto and the final Tempo di Menuetto with a dour Adagio second movement. A similar pattern can be heard in the F Major quartet K. 158, but there is an air of seriousness in the first movement Allegro, which is followed by a serene Andante - un poco Allegretto and a sensual closing Tempo di Menuetto.

These discs include three quartets from the set of six, K. 168-173, which Mozart composed in Vienna in late 1773. According to the publisher’s website, the edition of K. 170 in C Major performed here contains significant corrections from Mozart’s autograph. A striking feature of this quartet, written a few months after those from Italy, is how much flexibility Mozart allowed himself (a sign of confidence?). The opening Andante is a theme and variations rather than a more common sonata-form movement. The Un poco adagio has a dreamy feel in the rhythm of a slow dance.

By opening with an Adagio – Allegro assai, the quartet in E flat major K. 171 implies that one of Haydn’s conventions influenced Mozart. An insouciant Menuetto precedes a forlorn Andante; a tranquil Allegro assai concludes the work. As the final quartet in Mozart’s collection, K. 173 in D minor has the distinction of being the only one in a minor key. The first movement Allegro ma molto moderato is funereal; the Andante grazioso offers a respite from the morosity that returns in the Menuetto; and the final Allegro moderato invokes agony through descending chromatic lines.

Each of the CDs in this volume concludes with a quartet drawn from the six that Mozart dedicated to Haydn. Composed exactly a decade after his previous quartet in D minor, K. 421 (1783) is dark and tense. The opening Allegro moderato juxtaposes a first theme in minor, which conveys despair, with a sanguine second theme in major. Despite its major key, the Andante is sombre, albeit with a brief, lyrical trio. The austere Menuetto. Allegretto precedes a dramatic closing Allegro ma non troppo - Pił allegro. The final work recorded here, K. 428 in E-flat Major, opens with a vibrant Allegro non troppo, followed by a contemplative Andante con moto that does not lapse into melancholy, a jaunty Menuetto. Allegretto, and an effervescent Allegro vivace.

As noted in my review of Volume 4, it would be helpful to have the quartets presented chronologically to trace Mozart’s development. The presentation – a cardboard triptych with the CDs in slits on the insides of the outer panels – offers little protection for the discs. The booklet contains an essay in German with an English translation, but it can fall out from the middle of the sleeve. Avi Music will hopefully issue the complete set in a clamshell box with the CDs in individual cardboard sleeves and a booklet containing the commentary from the initial releases.

Daniel Floyd