String Quartets, Vol. 5: K156, 158, 170, 171, 173, 421, 428
Avi-music 8553496 126:18 mins (2 discs)
No doubt Hans Keller was intending to provoke when he wrote: ‘On the whole, Mozart’s early quartets are quite abominable.’ True, he excepted the 16-year old composer’s three-movement G major Quartet, K156, describing it as ‘a perfect and inspired miniature’ – and a spirited rendition opens the second disc of this latest release in the Armida Quartett’s on-going complete survey. Yet, listening to the clunky transition from slow introduction to the Allegro in the first movement of the E flat Quartet K171 of a year later, or the weird chromatic fugue that concludes the D minor Quartet, K173, one hears what Keller meant: this is a composer still uncertain of the material, style and cogency of texture best suited to the quartet medium.
Only a decade later, in seeking to measure up to the one contemporary he regarded as his peer, did the 27-year old Mozart achieve full mastery in the set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn – of which the first two he finished complete this collection: the D minor Quartet, K421, full of agitation and tragedy, and the E flat major Quartet, K428, more smoothly unfolding, if not without its chromatic twists.
The Armida Quartett, who emerged as BBC New Generation Artists in 2014, play modern instruments but minimise vibrato while maximising dynamic contrasts even in the slighter early quartets; and some listeners may prefer a less gutsy, more dulcet approach. But intonation, choice of tempos and care for nuance are all that they should be.