WORKS: Piano Quartet in G minor, K478; Piano Quartet in E flat, K493
PERFORMER: Paul Lewis (piano); Leopold String Trio
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67373
Mozart’s G minor Piano Quartet proved far too complex and bewildering for the amateur market in 1785. The 18th century’s bafflement is, of course, our delight. And Paul Lewis and the Leopold String Trio respond to the music’s expressive richness with rare style and understanding. I’ve heard more explosive performances of the opening movement of the G minor, but none more musically satisfying. The players’ close, spontaneous rapport, challenging or coaxing in dialogue and dovetailing their lyrical lines with natural grace, make even the augmented Beaux Arts Trio (Philips) sound a shade studied. Lewis commands a beautiful, pellucid singing tone and phrases Mozart’s cantabile melodies with exceptional refinement. And the strings match him in subtlety of colour and care for Mozart’s miraculous part-writing. But for all the delicacy of the playing, the music’s darkness and passion are fully expressed, whether in the mounting tension of the development (further heightened on the repeat) or the turbulence of the coda. The slow movement is shaped in broad, eloquent paragraphs (these players have an unfailing gift for thinking ‘long’), its moments of drama and harmonic disquiet savoured but never exaggerated. And the G major finale has an unusual tenderness and grace to leaven its Papageno-ish high spirits.
Lewis and his partners are equally responsive to the mingled geniality and grandeur of the E flat Quartet, giving a performance at once richly lyrical and full of witty touches of timing and colouring (with some inventive improvisations from Lewis at ‘lead-ins’). I liked, too, their relatively gentle tempo for the gavotte finale (marked Allegretto rather than Allegro), the varied inflections Lewis brings to the main theme and the players’ feel for the surprise and mystery of Mozart’s remote modulations. Enough said.
Classy rival recordings of these quartets include those by the Beaux Arts, Emanuel Ax, Isaac Stern and friends (Sony), and the classic vintage version from Clifford Curzon and the Amadeus (Decca). But for freshness, insight and sheer beauty of tone and phrase, this new disc takes the palm.