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Mozart quartets LWC1219
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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Dedicated to Haydn - Volume 2
String Quartet No 14 in G major, K. 387 "Spring" [26:29]
String Quartet No 17 in B-flat major, K. 458 "Hunt"[24:50]
String Quartet No 18 in A major, K. 464 “Drum” [28:34]
Engegård Quartet
rec. 18-19 & 21-22 May 2020, Sofienberg Church, Oslo
Notes in Norwegian with English translation

This very well-filled CD presents three of the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and can do so because repeats are eschewed. That raises the question of whether the tempi here are too fast in order to accommodate all three onto one disc – but if the Engegård Quartet was rushing to fit in all three works, that is not apparent to my ears; I generally like their urgency, with just one or two reservations.

In preparation for embarking on this review, I surveyed the Mozart string quartets on my shelves and found that I had something like a dozen versions of the quartets here – yet that represents but a tiny fraction of the number of recordings in the catalogue of these perennially popular works. This makes comparison and recommendation nigh on impossible; all the hapless reviewer can do is listen with an unprejudiced ear and make a few tentative observations reflecting personal taste and preferences. I must add that I prefer to listen to Mozart’s chamber music played on modern instruments but that does not preclude adaptation to period-practice style. Apart from the Engegård Quartet’s predilection for swift tempi, their approach is entirely conventional, neither eschewing nor exaggerating vibrato and phrasing neatly without too much portamento or clipping.

K. 387 was the first of the ten mature quartets and I very much like both the brilliance of Engegård’s timbre here and the manner in which they emphasise the dynamic contrasts essential to the impact of the first movement. There is a welcome raw edge to their establishment of the tonic in the succession of key changes in the middle section and beneath the appropriately vernal optimism – hence its nickname, “Spring” - there is always an element of tension, just as in the superficially elegant minuet the shifting position of the strong note in phrases maintains a certain disquietude. The third Andante cantabile movement, could, I think, have been taken a shade less briskly; the Franz Schubert Quartet of Vienna, for instance, take over eight minutes compared with the 6:22 here but some might find that sentimentally indulgent and the Engegård’s account it is still deeply felt, the virtuosic passages for the lead violin singing out sweetly. The racing, pyrotechnic contrapuntal sections of the finale are deftly and adroitly negotiated; intonation and ensemble are admirable.

The music of the first movement of the “Hunt” responds especially well to the brightness and verve of this quartet’s playing but they also exude a relaxed sunniness in the middle section. The brief minuet is brisk but stately; the Adagio, too, in common with all the slower movements here, is kept moving but is still poised and dignified, and rubato is sensitively applied to the lead-in to the long, lyrical phrases, so any rigidity is avoided. The Allegro assai finale is surely approaching Presto and for charm and fleetness rivals the Smetana Quartet on their fine, digital, 1981 recording on Denon; the omission of the repeat intensifies its breathless rush.

In England, K. 464 acquired the sobriquet “Drum” because in the last variation of the third movement the cello plays a “rat-a-tat” staccato figure which supposedly imitates the sound of timpani. A year ago, I very positively reviewed The Emerson Quartet’s recording of it and opined that apart from its final movement, No 18 hasn’t quite the quality of the best of the late quartets and for that reason neither it nor No 14 here has achieved the popularity of the “Hunt” or the supreme “Dissonance”. Its opening mood seems to be typically Haydnesque in its sunniness but darker, more complex elements soon intrude. The Menuetto, too, at first appears deceptively facile but Mozart applies the same “trick” as in the first movement of complicating the musical substance with curlicue ornamentation and darker-hued harmonies and the Engegård Quartet brings great energy and intensity to its execution.

The slow movement is again somewhat pacier than some rival versions, a minute faster than the Emersons and a surprising four minutes quicker than the Franz Schubert, who surely substitute Adagio for Andante; the Engegård’s tempo is decidedly “walking pace” as opposed to dawdling, and arguably more faithful to Mozart’s intentions. Having said that, I enjoy both very different approaches, although I would submit that a faster pace helps obviate the risk of the variations out-staying their welcome. The plaintive, chromatic four-note falling theme underlying the finale is suavely tossed from instrument to instrument with a gradual, almost imperceptible but palpable ratcheting up of tempo and the abrupt “dying fall” of the conclusion is played unfussily, making it all the more striking and unexpected.

I have provided and employed the quartets’ nicknames above for ease of reference although they are not used in this issue. The digital SACD sound is flawless in its amplitude, balance, clarity and sonority. The track details on the cardboard digipack cover are in miniscule white print on a beige and grey background; they are given in black type inside, but still in an absurdly small point size. No total timings for each quartet or an overall CD length provided – only individual movements – which is irritating; I have added them up as per above. Is it so much to ask that the details be complete and legible to what is preponderantly an aging customer base? Elegance of design is no substitute for functionality.

This is lovely quartet playing and if you respond to the Engegård’s bright tone and swift tempi, this collection is for you; if you prefer a more leisurely approach, however, look elsewhere, as there are plenty of options.

Ralph Moore

Performers: Arvid Engegård (violin); Alex Robson (violin); Juliet Jopling (viola); Jan Clemens Carlsen (cello)

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