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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet No.14 in G major, K.387 ‘Spring’ (1782) [28:58]
String Quartet No.15 in D minor, K.421 (1783) [27:29]
String Quartet No.16 in E flat major, K.428 (1783) [28:33]
String Quartet No.17 in B flat major, K.458 ‘Hunt’ (1784) [26:06]
Schäffer Quartet
rec. 1956, Cologne
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1646-47 [56:30 + 54:42]

One of Forgotten Records’ most valuable services is to disinter recordings on small labels by fine ensembles that have long since fallen into obscurity. That’s certainly the case with the Schäffer Quartet whose recordings of some Beethoven Quartets I enthusiastically reviewed a while ago (review). Given that most people will be unfamiliar with the ensemble, I’ll reprise a brief history of the group.

The first violinist was Kurt Schäffer, soloist and professor of violin in Salzburg and Düsseldorf. Second violinist Franzjosef Maier founded the ensemble Aureum Collegium and enjoyed an important series of positions in Cologne. Franz Beyer had played in the Strub Quartet and like his confrères enjoyed cachet in Cologne and Düsseldorf as did cellist Kurt Herzbruch. As with their Beethoven recordings, maybe the conflation of Cologne-based players and a small French record label conspired against the group. There were always higher profile ensembles and record labels.

But as these four Mozart quartets show, in recordings made for Le Club Français du Disque in 1956, the Schäffer reprises the excellence it showed in its late Beethoven readings. Coincidentally I’ve been listening to a 1944 78rpm recording of K428 made by the Ondříček Quartet, also restored by Forgotten Records, and much as I admire the Czech group for its overtly romanticist élan, the Schäffer, recorded a mere 15 years later, sounds a far more streamlined and contemporary ensemble.

All the minuets are finely characterised, and outer movements are rhythmically buoyant. The slow movement of K387 is sensitively phrased but not over vibrated or subjected to any romanticised excess, whilst the fugal entry points in the finale are crisp and unimpeachably accurate. The violins’ tonal blend and matching vibrato speed can be appreciated in the slow movement of K421, where violist Franz Beyer plays out nicely, and the ensemble has a quietly witty way with the Minuet.

Sensitive to internal balance, and shaping the wistfully melancholic material with acumen, the quartet really vests the Andante of K428 with grace. Equally the foursome locates the pathos inherent in the Adagio of K458 without undue fuss but with expressive candour. The ensemble’s corporate tone is warm, from cellist Kurt Herzbruch up, and these four examples of its art are deserving of far more exposure than I suspect they ever received at the time.

So, full marks to FR for allowing this twofer to escape from the vaults. A brief few paragraphs on the back of the jewel case discuss the group and reference the double LP from which these excellent transfers derive.

Jonathan Woolf

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