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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
String Quartet No. 20 in D major, K499, Hoffmeister [24:17]
String Quartet No. 22 in B flat major, K589, Prussian [23:17]
Vienna Philharmonic Quartet
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, 15 March 1961, ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 4711 [47:42]

The Vienna Philharmonic Quartet begin the Hoffmeister quartet in unfussy but amiably flowing, companionable manner. At the same time there’s a strong rhythmic outline and variety of involvement by all instruments. This is needed as melodically the basis of the movement is loose variations on the opening phrase: a styled rhythmic descent then a firm hold on four repetitions of one note. The joy bubbles over in an exultant, gleeful codetta to the exposition (2:13) when the cello echoes the first violin’s ‘variation’ while the others have now faster repeated notes and the exposition ends with a brief appearance of alternating repeated notes. The development (2:41) pits slower repeated notes as earlier against those alternating notes. You appreciate Mozart’s ingenuity thus revealed, but more than that you enjoy it because the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet delivers it clearly, firmly yet without fuss. For all that, the recapitulation is more homely. The coda threatens a return of the development. This is first worked wistfully, then dances away in those happy alternating notes. I compared the Belcea Quartet of 2005 (EMI 3444552). This is more polished, with a more assured flow, but also more insistent in its pointing, making the whole experience less restful than with the VPQ. The Belcea’s development opening is a touch more astringent though it soon calms down.
The interest of the Minuet (tr. 2) lies in how the motif of its second strain (0:24) passes from first to second violin, viola and cello in turn while at the end the viola provides a steely counter tune to the first violin. The VPQ is quite muscular in a well pointed, not heavy, way. Their Trio, by contrast, has a nice zing and stays on its toes for the intricate, light, yet spirited imitation between the instruments. The Belcea are faster (2:49 against 3:18), more Allegro than Allegretto, more stylish and silvery, slick even in the Minuet, more feathery in the Trio.
The VPQ slow movement is exquisitely played. Its emphasis is more on mood than melody and the effect is one of retrospectively savoured happiness, sweetly distilled, at times intensely sunny, and thus relived. It is nostalgic but the VPQ treat its Adagio at no more than Adagietto and thereby prevent it from becoming sentimental. It makes for a fine balance between emotion and flow. Melody seems organized to supply pockets of expressiveness and imitation between instruments but contrasts in dynamics, harmonies and ornamentation are equally important. The first violin takes the lead in this and Willi Boskovsky displays both tenderness and an appreciation of the fragility of recalling an evanescent feeling. The Belcea adopt much the same tempo at the VPQ but there’s less emphasis on progression. They are more sheeny and delicate, more consciously expressive in the moment and more marked in dynamic contrast, but in their conveying of the craftsmanship of the movement the emotion is more subdued.
The finale starts in a happy-go-lucky, scherzo-like manner to which Boskovsky’s opening solo brings an air of improvisation. Yet this flimsy structure proves more robust in its progress, supporting a counter theme (0:16) and variety of underlying harmony. The third theme (0:36) is more resolute and the exposition codetta (1:16) treats triplets as vivaciously as in the Trio. In the development the second theme is more rigorously worked with some blending of the first. The coda (4:19) is at first more relaxed, then briefly summative. With nimbleness and dexterity the impression the VPQ give is that it’s all about sleight of hand but it also has an irrepressible optimism. Here the Belcea are a little faster and more scintillating and make the exposition and second half repeats which the VPQ do not: if they did the VPQ timing would be 9:18 in comparison with the Belcea’s 8:47. There’s more excitement in the Belcea’s greater momentum but I prefer the greater grace and melody revealed by the VPQ as well as more characterful detail, such as the interplay between the rising cello and falling viola from 1:17.
The Prussian quartet K589 (tr. 5) is more urbane, especially its opening movement which has a seamless progression of melodic ideas contentedly shared. The cello gets a particularly good share because it was the instrument of its dedicatee, the King of Prussia but the viola also has a fair opportunity in the recapitulation. In fact you notice how integrated the involvement of the all the instruments is, like the oscillating quavers the cello applies at the end of the opening phrase which are immediately taken up by viola, then first violin. This ensures an easygoing momentum which exactly suits the rather drawling second theme (0:56) given full character by the VPQ. The development (3:01) has a more searching, visionary quality which makes you appreciate the homeliness of the return of the earlier material.
If you’ve been waiting so far in this CD for a lovely, long breathed Mozart melody, there’s one in the slow movement (tr. 6), unsurprisingly given first to cello but then passed to first violin. It’s played by the VPQ with warmth, affection and an appreciation of its quality. The repeat has at its tail glowing pendants of descending phrases from viola, eventually showcased by all the instruments. The second theme (2:11) seems insubstantial yet has a graceful elegance.
The Minuet, at first appearing inconsequentially polite, is growingly busy. The real surprise, though, is the Trio, nearly twice the length of the Minuet. At the outset it struts purposefully, but its second strain introduces a more thoughtful vein before the strutting returns unfazed.
The finale (tr. 8) is played lightly, neatly and joyously with sprinklings of fluttering semiquaver clusters scattered among the instruments. You enjoy the deft syncopation of its second phase, especially from 1:18, with first violin and later also second pitted against the others.
The recording is close and clear yet not excessively so. In the booklet note Tully Potter provides some helpful pointers regarding the VPQ’s style of playing, one not heard today. I’d add there’s more ruggedness in the expression, rigour in the projection of the argument when warranted. But above all you feel the music really matters to the players.
Michael Greenhalgh