MOZART: String Quartets K. 157; K. 458; K. 589 – Jerusalem Quartet – Harmonia mundi HMC 902076, 76:09 *****:
More than any other classical music form, the chamber music CDs that are being issued today show how good today’s classical musicians have become. This recent release, showcasing the Jerusalem Quartet performing three quartets of Mozart from different time periods, is a case in point. Founded in 1993 in Jerusalem, they were tutored by the violinist Avi Abramovitch and from 1999 to 2001 were supported as a BBC New Generation Artist. In 2008 their interpretation of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet won the ‘Diapason d’or of the year 2008.’ The Jerusalem Quartet’s shading of tempo and dynamics, their polished, yet dramatic readings, spot on intonation, clean articulation and skill at revealing the underlying emotion of these quartets won me over. The detailed and reverberant sound produces an immediate impact that is almost symphonic in nature.
The K.157 (the third ‘Milanese’ Quartet) was written when Mozart was 17 and under the influence of his trips to Italy. The distinctive movement is the pensive Andante, an extraordinary expression of interior pensiveness for a teenager. Here it’s played as a slow waltz with an elegant sadness that reveals the emotion underneath. Framed by an Allegro that is dramatic and lyrical and an exuberantly brief Presto, it’s a performance that evokes wonder at Mozart’s youthful fecundity.
In K. 458 (incorrectly named ”Hunt” for it’s opening chords that hardly represent a brace of horns), Mozart entered a world that “transfigured the genre (of string quartets) and imbued it with a degree of subjectivity and intensity of feeling that was not again reached until Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets two decades later,” as Mozart author Maynard Solomon contends. It was during a private performance of this ‘Haydn’ Quartet that the composer told father Leopold that he regarded Mozart as “the greatest composer of the age.” The Jerusalem Quartet’s superbly executed trills, and their ability to balance the tension between the dramatic and the lyrical moments in the lengthy first movement without diminishing their intensity, makes this performance special. The ineffable sadness underneath the surface beauty of the Adagio is exquisitely expressed.
K. 589 was one of the four quartets commissioned by Frederick William II, King of Prussia, who was an accomplished cellist and patron of music. Written when he was 34, under extremely stressful physical and economic conditions, Mozart transcends his perilous state and composed his penultimate masterpiece in this genre. Contrapuntally rich, melodically pregnant, inwardly contemplative (but not depressive), this quartet resonates with the wisdom and acceptance of old age. Appropriately, it ends quietly.
Throughout this CD, the Jerusalem Quartet successfully navigates the ambiguity of Mozart’s music – the cheerfulness – the sadness – the torment and release – while remaining within the precise restraint of the Classical style. This is a beautiful disc of glorious music.
— Robert Moon