MOZART: The Prussian Quartets. String Quartet in D, K. 575. String Quartet
in B-flat, K. 589. String Quartet in F, K. 590.
Emerson String Quartet.
Sony 88697936982 TT: 74:43.
BUY NOW FROM ARKIVMUSIC
Elegant. Mozart-olatry really ticks me off. Sure, Mozart's a great composer,
but is he the Greatest Composer? Is he any better than Bach, other than
the fact that he wrote better operas and string quartets? Is he, as so
many claim, the Universal Genius of Music? I have no idea what that phrase
means, by the way. Do angels really prefer to play Mozart rather than Bach
among themselves (see Karl Barth)? The adolescent sentimentality of this
nonsense irritates. I need a Tums.
As to the quartets themselves -- late Mozart and absolutely wonderful.
He wrote them for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II. Because the
king played cello, Mozart reconceived the normal string quartet writing
of the day to give the monarch a more prominent part than merely supporting
harmony. In fact, he often hands off this function to the viola and allows
the cello to climb higher in the texture. In so doing, he made all the
parts more contrapuntally independent and of more equal interest. What
amazes me most about these quartets and Mozart in general is how neatly
and unfussily he arrives at satisfying solutions to the problems set, without
losing his sense of compositional ease or his radiant tunefulness.
For reasons I don't understand, players don't do them as much as the "Haydn" quartets.
If you check online, you will find that recordings of the earlier set
outpace the Prussians by about three-to-one. Perversely, I prefer the
-- late Mozart, once he had learnt from J. S. Bach -- since I like counterpoint.
Mozart relies less here on the usual Classical quartet accompaniment
Mozart originally planned a set of six quartets with some hopes of obtaining
a court position but managed to complete only three. He never did officially
dedicate them to Friedrich Wilhelm. Historians have advanced several explanations,
including a bout of severe depression that struck the composer as well
as an unwillingness to leave Vienna permanently for Berlin. And who would
blame him? Perhaps the job fell through.
Each quartet exhibits the same general four-part structure: a sonata movement,
a slow aria, a minuet and trio, and a quick finale, but Mozart fills that
structure in inventive ways.
K. 575 begins with a theme reminiscent of the Piano Sonata in F, K. 332.
The first movement is beautifully clear structurally, as well as melodious.
Like Mozart at his best, it flows "naturally," but this hides
some amazing things, including the interpenetration of elements from
the first and second subject groups to form new themes. The third-movement
minuet makes extensive use of an initial rapid turn, as well as sharp
on unexpected notes. In its embrace of surprise and caprice, it reminds
me greatly of Haydn. The gracious trio again hides the unusual, in that
the cello carries the melodic burden and thus necessitates idiosyncratic
ensemble textures. The rondo finale continues to stress this, with a
reliance on two-part writing and double imitation.
The first movement of K. 589 emphasizes lean textures. All four instruments
seldom play all at once. The movement ranges widely, from classical suavity
to near-Romantic Angst. Mozart again judges so perfectly that the boldness
of the movement may escape some listeners. The second-movement Larghetto
is largely a duet between violin and cello. Mozart develops the minuet
and trio -- especially the trio -- at greater length than usual in such
a movement. At times, it approaches sonata complexity. The finale seems
a rondo, until you realize that it has really only one theme, virtuosically
The most conventional of the group, K. 590 nevertheless harbors its own
secrets. The first theme of the quartet never shows up in the first movement's
development section. The Andante second movement combines theme and variations
and sonata form, which to me provides a blueprint for the late variations
of Beethoven. The minuet and trio feel out of kilter, as if the dancers
were slightly drunk and disoriented, due to odd phrase lengths. The finale
feels almost symphonic, with its main theme subject to all sorts of "learned" contrapuntal
display. Syncopations feature prominently, in a way that Beethoven was
to build upon.
I've always loved the Emerson. I've heard more "Mozartean" playing
from older, more traditional European ensembles, but this is one exciting
disc. And that's obviously the more important point. Who's to say what
Mozart would have wanted or how he heard this music in his head? The
Emerson convinces you that these relatively less-familiar scores are
My one carp is the recorded sound -- too big and slightly too reverberant.
Other than that, a high recommendation.
S.G.S. (March 2012)