WORKS: The Ten Celebrated String Quartets (Haydn; Hoffmelster; Prussian)
PERFORMER: Franz Schubert Quartet of Vienna
CATALOGUE NO: NI 1778
Mozart wrote some 15 string quartets in the early 1770s, but these ten belong to his Vienna years – the six Haydn quartets were written between 1783 and 1785, the Hoffmeister in 1786 and the final three Prussian quartets in 1790. The stylistic and emotional scope of these later works is Mozart’s response to Haydn’s six Op. 33 quartets, in which the older composer more or less refashioned the form he is credited with inventing, showing the possibilities that could arise when the instruments were treated equally and the themes subjected to almost continuous development – the quartet was no longer simply a vehicle for a galant melody to be taken by the first violin and accompanied by the other instruments.
These performances by the Franz Schubert Quartet of Vienna are suffused with a rich, warm and sweet tone – what one might call appropriately Viennese qualities – and the players communicate the sense of being comfortable with the music. There are times, especially in the lighter, more bucolic movements — such as in the Hunt or the Allegro vivace assai of K387 – when one wishes for the freshness and spontaneity of the Chilingirian Quartet, for example, but these accounts are not lacking in briskness and vitality, and the finale of K387, especially, is delivered with great punch. The sound can be rather too bright in the treble, but otherwise the instruments are well balanced.
Despite the lyricism of the quartets, they are darker and less jovial than Haydn’s high-spirited Op. 33. One of the strengths of these performances is the group’s alertness to Mozart’s ability to convey an underlying sadness not only through the drama of minor keys – significantly, only one of the ten works, K421, is written primarily in a minor key — but in the treatment of major keys, notably in the finale of the Hoffmeister Quartet. Indeed, one of the most searching moments in the whole of Mozart’s music is the opening of the Dissonance Quartet (K465), when the strange chromaticisms resolve into C major – an apparent harmonic terra firma — with a tender good humour tempered by resignation. Here too, the Franz Schubert Quartet is sensitive to Mozart’s realisation of emotional complexity, which can speak so eloquently across the centuries. William Humphreys-Jones