MOZART: The Prussian Quartets – Emerson String Quartet – Sony

by | Nov 28, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

MOZART: The Prussian Quartets = String Quartet in D Major, K. 575; String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 589; String Quartet in F Major, K. 590 – Emerson String Quartet – Sony 88687935962, 74:43 ****:
Twenty years have passed since the Emerson Quartet addressed the music of Mozart, so this disc bespeaks a gesture of artistic conscience and technical acumen. “Elegance, beauty, and style” remain their self-confessed concerns, as well as maintaining the eminently vocal character of Mozart’s melodic lines.
The events surrounding the actual writing of the quartets of 1789 bespeak Mozart’s financial crises at the time, exacerbated by the fact that King Friedrich Wilhelm II played the cello and wanted that instrument to rise beyond its mere, traditional supporting role. Mozart solved the problem of acoustic balance in the quartets by having each quartet member become a soloist, accomplishing a sense of ensemble by the integration of essentially bravura writing for the individual parts that integrates seamlessly into a consort. The D Major Quartet, K. 575 seems to have been penned at high speed, though its balanced proportions betray no sense of haste. David Finckel’s resonant cello line makes its hearty presence known only after having remained tacet, entering with successive D’s and then asserting its melodic capacities.
The expressive Andante in A Major has the cello rise in the broad middle section, often in lovely dialogue with first violin Philip Setzer. The Emerson applies vibrato ad libitum, adding to the emotional content when deemed appropriate. Four sixteenth notes provide an upbeat figure for the Minuet, which dances fleetly in striking colors marked by octaves. Finckel ushers in the lovely Trio tune while the violins scratch away, ostinato, above. The throaty viola of Lawrence Dutton adds to the distinctive coloration. The cello once more introduces the theme of the concluding Allegretto, a rondo based on a rising tonic triad, the harmonic glue for most of the work. The violin begins a phrase that the cello likes to conclude. A “busy” movement, the writing, often contrapuntal, displays the kind of developmental virtuosity that Mozart bestowed upon the quartet medium as a whole.
Thee B-flat Major Quartet, K. 589 raises the level of Mozart’s skill even further, utilizing an opening question-answer mode in the violin and cello to engage in miraculous voice-leading and canonic-imitation procedures to dazzle both eye and ear. For this and the concluding F Major Quartet, Eugene Drucker does the honors of the first violin part. The cello part soars in fond melody, and so does the viola. The music generally sparkles in the first movement Allegro, at least until a moment at the end the exposition, when we modulate to the parallel minor for a passing cloud of Mozart’s dire social and economic straits.  The Emerson impress an ardent intimacy of the proceedings. The E-flat Major Larghetto sings in the manner of an impassioned Italian aria, the degree of difficulty in the part writing having become quite daunting, as if to announce to King Friedrich Wilhelm, or to his agent Duport, that Mozart’s imaginative and technical facility transcended them all. The Trio of the Minuet actually outshines its surrounding tissue, developing the materials with the dramatic intensity we usually ascribe to a younger contemporary, Beethoven. Mozart’s sense of impish fun rises to the top in the Allegro assai finale, a 6/8 sonata-rondo in the Haydn mold that likes to insert duple time into the 6/8 bustle, modulating to a virtuosic D-flat Major in the development. Near the conclusion, Mozart spaces two sets of duple meters an eighth note apart.  Happily, first violin Drucker rescues us from our metric consternation to deliver us from agogic evil.
The F Major Quartet, Mozart’s last (1790), marks his twenty-third essay in the genre. The main theme of the opening Allegro moderato begins in bare octaves but rises via a triad and descending scale, Mozart’s modus in K. 575. The cello states the second theme, Finckel then moving two octaves higher to another, more lyrical melody. The first theme ends the exposition followed by a foreshortened development which has seized various bits and fragments to modify. The C Major Andante builds a sonata form on alterations of the opening theme, the opening rhythmic kernel’s having become obsessive. Alfred Einstein once called this movement “one of the most sensitive movements in the whole literature of chamber music.” The Minuet and its Trio exploit appoggiaturas and irregular phrase lengths that demand rounded ends to support “convention.” Mozart ends his “democratic” treatment of quartet part-writing with a perpetuum mobile Allegro that just as often pauses and shifts direction. The oft-contrapuntal rondo tune cavorts in all sorts of directions and permutations, even syncopated and upside-down. To smile even in the midst of tragedy seems Mozart’s eternal gift, and this Mona Lisa opus finds the Emerson ensemble in immaculate unanimity of mind and peerless form.
—Gary Lemco