Mozart: String Quartets (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Quartetto Italiano
CATALOGUE NO: 462 262-2 Reissue (1966-73)
When it comes to the ten great string quartets of Mozart’s maturity, there’s hardly a shortage of recordings; but the baker’s dozen of similar works he wrote as a precocious teenager are, for obvious reasons, much less familiar. Some of them are frankly experimental: the first and last in a set of six quartets composed in Vienna in 1773 end with a fugue in Handelian style, perhaps inspired by the fugal finales of Haydn’s recently published Op. 20 quartets; while the Quartet in B flat, K159, from an earlier cycle written ‘to keep boredom at bay’ during a trip to Milan, begins as a string trio, with the eventual entry of the first violin serving startlingly to take the music into a new key.

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The Quartetto Italiano performs all these early works with exquisite refinement. It takes a serious view of the music, to the point of sometimes seeming bent on making it sound like late Beethoven, though it’s hard to complain when the playing itself is of so high a standard. Nevertheless, there are times – the opening Presto of the delightful K156 is a case in point – when the music-making ultimately lacks a sense of fun. The same is occasionally true in the great works here – the Italiano is rather ponderous in the opening movement of the Hunt Quartet, K458, and the Prussian, K575 – but there is much more to admire than to carp at. The obvious contender in this repertoire is the Amadeus, whose generally livelier tempi, coupled with a marked reluctance to observe repeats, means that the complete cycle is accommodated on seven CDs, rather than eight. I find greater warmth in the Amadeus performances, though you would be hard put to find better playing than Quartetto Italiano’s; and the quality of the Philips recordings, some of them more than 30 years old, belies their age. Misha Donat