Mozart: String Quartets, K80 & K155-9

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COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: Praga
WORKS: String Quartets, K80 & K155-9
PERFORMER: Kocian Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: PRD 250 137
That notorious agent provocateur Hans Keller once dismissed Mozart’s early string quartets as ‘on the whole quite abominable’. ‘Why play them at all,’ he asked, ‘and insult Mozart’s genius?’ Well, there are certainly longueurs in the six quartets here, all but the earliest written in Milan during the winter of 1772-3. But while much of K155 in D had me sympathising with Keller, each of the other Milan quartets contains at least one memorable movement. Best of all is K156 in G, with its breezy, wittily developed opening Presto – a sort of proto-waltz – and pathetic E minor Adagio. Other compelling minor-keyed middle movements here include a melancholy chromatic serenade in K157 and an urgent, angular G minor Allegro in the otherwise dull K159.

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The Prague-based Kocian Quartet, the latest group to risk insulting Mozart’s genius, are decent rather than inspired interpreters. While their instincts are always thoroughly musical, their unyielding vibrato and penchant for measured tempos and sostenuto phrasing lend the performances a distinctly old-fashioned air. A movement like the C minor serenade in K157 suffers from a want of grace and fantasy, while Allegros are inclined to chug amiably rather than swagger and scintillate. The recording is acceptable enough, if on the reverberant side. The Quartetto Italiano (Philips) and, more recently, the American Quartet (MusicMasters) would be my first choices in these apprentice works, though both are only available as part of a complete Mozart quartet cycle. Richard Wigmore