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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478 (1785) [31:01]
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493 (1786) [33:08]
Joyce Yang (piano)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. 2017, St. Stephens Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA

Neither of these works, to put it mildly, plays itself. The G minor in particular is full of technical and expressive difficulties for the players, questions as to balance between the piano and strings, obviously, but also voice leading and balancing between the three strings. Vibrato weight and colour and the question as to the density of individual and corporate string tone also materially affect the interpretative stance: too much and the music can become congealed, too little and afflatus can be sacrificed on the altar of superficiality.

The members of the Alexander String Quartet resolve these questions through assiduous clarity and refinement allied to a varied but palpable sense of warmth. The results circumvent arid arguments about performance style and overt romanticizing of Classical repertoire. The two piano quartets emerge naturally and unaffectedly with phrasing that breathes, with rubato that speaks, and with caesuri that ensure the music’s punctuation is never forced but equally never lapses into sentimentality.

The sprung rhythm of the opening of the G minor allied to clear, lively playing in a sympathetic church acoustic – never swamping, well judged – is matched by a degree of chordal trenchancy when the music demands it. Joyce Yang plays the opening piano paragraph of the central slow movement with great perception, the strings responding with comparable grace, the bass line sturdy but not overbearing or over-balancing. In the companion quartet in E flat major, a less stormy work but in some ways no less taxing, the foursome catch the opening movement’s sheer changeability of mood with real tenacity. They seem to relish the concertante and quasi-operatic elements here, but again without exaggerating them.

Indeed, a refusal to indulge or to overplay is a hallmark of these performances and there is not a trace of those streamlining Mozart performances of days of yore. Instead, one finds naturalness of expression, and the ability to linger but not to indulge. If this means that the results are not saturated in timbral warmth, then that is the aesthetic judgement of the plyers. Technically accomplished, expressively sensitive, they deal justly with the many complexities the music presents.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Dominy Clements (Recording of the Month)

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