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.

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 later quartets -- late Mozart, once he had learnt from J. S. Bach -- since I like counterpoint. Mozart relies less here on the usual Classical quartet accompaniment gambits.

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 accents 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 varied.

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 masterpieces. My one carp is the recorded sound -- too big and slightly too reverberant. Other than that, a high recommendation.

S.G.S. (March 2012)