Wolfgang Amadeus MozartWolfgang Amadeus MozartIs it possible we are getting too much Mozart? Or is it more likely we can never have enough? Various myths about that composer’s life and works have been exploded, and it is good to have them out of the way, for they gratuitously romanticized a life that was quite remarkable enough without such embellishments -- and the music itself remains endlessly and self-renewingly fascinating, simply beyond all norms. During the last two or three years we have had stunning reminders of this in the exalted realm of the string quartet, in the form of two economically priced boxes of the 23 specimens of that form that Mozart produced from his early teens to his final years. The Amadeus Quartet’s performances are in a box of six CDs from Deutsche Grammophon (477 8680), while the more recent ones by the Talich Quartet are in a seven-disc box from La Dolce Volta (LDV 100.6).

These two recordings may strike us less as rivals than as powerful demonstrations of the extraordinary substance and variety of this music. There are precious few allowances to be made in evaluating either of these sets, for both of them are so consistent, each in its own way, in sustaining such high levels of insight, fluency and all-round persuasiveness.

As in Beethoven’s case, Mozart’s production of string quartets may be said to fall in three periods -- though involving a shorter time overall: the 20 years from age 14 to age 34, in contrast to the 28 years, from age 27 to age 55, for Beethoven. Mozart, in his shorter life, traveled farther afield than Beethoven (London, Paris, Italy), as his father (Leopold Mozart, a violinist and pedagogue whose violin method was republished and in constant use for at least a hundred years after his death) intended that the boy show off his prodigious skills abroad, and at the same time become familiar with the musical styles and tastes of all of Europe.

The dozen quartets Mozart composed in his teens reflect strong Italian influences, and half of them were actually written on visits to Lodi, Milan and Bolzano. In 1782, however, about a year after he settled in Vienna, the unquestionably mature 26-year-old Mozart began writing a different kind of string quartet, influenced largely by those of Joseph Haydn, to whom he dedicated a set of six of his own, published as his Op. X in 1785. A very few years later he composed a quartet for the publisher Hoffmeister, and a set of three for the King of Prussia, in a similar style, but showing further refinements along a path of his own.

Much earlier, two years after the first of his Italian quartets, he composed a set of three divertimentos for string quartet, K.136-138, three-movement works so orchestral in character that they have been called “Salzburg Symphonies” and are more likely to turn up in performances by string orchestras than in quartet programs. (Alfred Einstein speculated that Mozart may have intended to add oboes for orchestral performances.) And finally, just as Beethoven left us a Grosse Fuge for string quartet among his late works (it was originally the finale of his Quartet in B-flat, Op.130), Mozart, three years before his death, produced a concise, self-standing Adagio and Fugue in C minor for string quartet (adapted from an earlier piece for two pianos). Like Beethoven’s Grand Fugue, this piece, too, has taken a place in the repertory of string orchestra.

Postage stamp Mozart coverThe six works dedicated to Haydn -- Nos.14-19, including the “Hunt” Quartet in B-flat, K.458, and the “Dissonances” Quartet in C major, K.465 -- have been the most frequently performed and recorded of Mozart’s quartets. They were brought into being under the happiest of circumstances, not in a public setting, but in a more intimate one that involved an altogether different level of stimulation and fulfillment. Soon after he left his frustrating position at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg to settle in Vienna (1781), Mozart established a close friendship with Haydn, and together with two other composers of Haydn’s generation -- Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Jan Křititel Vaňhal -- they took part in a series of “quartet parties” in which Haydn was the leader, Dittersdorf was second violin, Mozart was violist, and Vaňhal was the cellist. It was at one of those events, early in 1785, that Haydn said to Leopold Mozart, “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by reputation. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

Those six “Haydn” quartets have been the most popular of Mozart’s works in this form, and the 12 early works are heard and recorded far less frequently -- just as Mozart’s early symphonies are heard far less frequently than the six final ones he composed in Vienna. The final four quartets have by no means been neglected, but occupy a position in respect to the “Haydn” set somewhat like that of Beethoven’s late quartets to the much loved “Rasoumovsky” set of his 30s. Neither the Amadeus Quartet nor the Talich, in their respective “integral” recordings, seemed to approach the early works in a condescending or perfunctory vein, or to have recorded them merely for the sake of achieving a complete set. Both ensembles bring to bear limitless enthusiasm and balanced judgment throughout the cycle, addressing and realizing each work on its own terms -- and that is why both sets merit our attention. When DG gets round to assembling a similar integral set with the splendid Hagen Quartet (some of whose recordings, quite unaccountably, appear to be unavailable now), it will surely be one to place beside those under discussion here, but not likely to eclipse them.

Both the Amadeus and Talich sets will always continue to have special claims on our attention, and by no means simply because of their attractive pricing. The Amadeus Quartet, as its name may suggest, was more or less born to play Mozart. Three of its four members -- the violinists Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel, and the violist Peter Schidlof -- were born in Vienna and relocated in London as teenagers, just before the outbreak of World War II; Martin Lovett, the slightly younger cellist, was a native Englishman. The quartet they formed just after the war gave its first performance in 1947 and, quite remarkably, had no change in personnel during its 40-year existence; it simply disbanded after the death of Peter Schidlof in August 1987.

Joseph HaydnJoseph HaydnFollowing a very brief exposure on Decca (Mozart), Westminster (more Mozart), L’Oiseau-Lyre (Beethoven cycle), Argo (Tippett) and EMI (Haydn), the Amadeus Quartet recorded exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon. The repertory on DG included a second complete Beethoven cycle, the three Brahms quartets, and works of Schubert, Dvořák and even Bruckner -- but it was in Mozart and Haydn that the Amadeus seemed most “at home.” The DG Mozart cycle, in its recent reissue, preserves both the character and the sound of those warm-hearted, authoritative performances from the 1960s and ‘70s. No tricks, no gimmicks, no big surprises, just a thorough understanding, commitment and unfailing tastefulness that made every phrase ring true as part of the uncontrived, substantial whole. Since the Amadeus generally omitted repeats, the six CDs accommodate the three divertimentos as well as the 23 quartets, and the sound is true to its affectionately remembered LP presence.

The Talich Quartet, whose name evokes the highest standards of Czech musicianship (its founder and original first violinist, Jan Talich, was a nephew of the famous conductor Václav Talich, for whom the quartet was named), was founded in 1964. This group first came to international notice with its by now legendary recording of the Beethoven cycle, taped in the years 1977-1982, which went straight to the top of many lists and enjoyed a wider circulation on CD. That cycle and the group’s subsequent recordings were made for the French label Calliope, the Mozart recorded in 1991-93 and originally issued on CD.

Unlike the Amadeus, the Talich Quartet has had lots of changes, some of its chairs occupied by as many as four different players in the nearly 50 years since its founding. Jan Talich himself, after the ensemble’s first six seasons, switched from first violin to viola, and held that position well into the 1990s. Two of the other members stayed more than 30 years, but none of the original members is among today’s personnel, in which the leader (since 1997) is Jan Talich’s son Jan Jr. -- nor was any of today’s players in the group’s famous recordings, from the period generally regarded as its peak years. The line-up in both the Beethoven and Mozart cycles was: Petr Messiereur, Jan Talich’s direct successor as leader; Jan Kvapil, second violin; Talich himself, viola; and Evžen Rattay, cello.

Following the dissolution of the Calliope enterprise, its catalog (which includes the Talich’s Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Ravel and Debussy and Mendelssohn as well as its Beethoven and Mozart cycles) was taken over by a new French label, with the curious Italian name La Dolce Volta. (Look again: not “La Dolce Vita”; the Italian word volta offers a variety of meanings, but the label’s logo is a silhouette of a motor-scooter, presumably a Volta.) This remastered set of the Mozart quartets sounds at least as realistic as the original Calliope CDs, but there are some conspicuous differences in the contents of the earlier CDs.

The one conspicuously welcome change is the appearance of the earliest of the quartets, K.80 in G major: not only was it missing from the Calliope set, but, as if to make up for that omission, the Quartet K.156, also in G major, actually appeared twice, on different discs and with different companion works.

Modern art Mozart cover Otherwise, the original Calliope presentation did not include any of the three divertimentos which are in the Amadeus set on DG, but did include the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K.546, and, since the quartets alone did not fit on six CDs (the Talich being more generous with repeats) and did not quite fill a seventh, there were three Mozart violin sonatas, played by Petr Messiereur with the pianist Stanislav Bogunia, and, oddly enough, a quartet by Haydn, the G minor, Op.74, No.3, known as “The Rider” or “The Horseman.” All five of these “extras” are omitted on LVD and, since two of the seven discs are conspicuously short on playing time, the set of seven CDs is offered for the price of six. I can understand the decision to omit the sonatas and the Haydn piece, but I regard the omission of the Adagio and Fugue as a mistake: it was given a powerful performance, and, at barely more than seven minutes, its inclusion would not have significantly altered the total playing time.

In this sense, the Amadeus on DG, with the three divertimentos and all 23 quartets, but without the Adagio and Fugue, may be regarded as the better buy, but I don’t imagine that many listeners serious enough (or merely curious enough) to buy such a set will let their choice be determined by considerations based merely on quantity -- and for real chamber music aficionados there are strong arguments for acquiring both sets. Both the Amadeus on DG and the Talich as remastered on La Dolce Volta offer outstanding performances of the 23 quartets. It is deceptively simplistic to suggest that the Amadeus performances are “mellower” and the Talich are “more spirited,” for actually neither set is lacking in either quality -- or in humor, or in subtlety, or any of the vital ingredients of this music. Both ensembles have plenty of “personality,” and neither allows it to overwhelm Mozart’s own. The bottom line here is that neither set ought ever to be out of circulation, and both DG and LDV deserve our gratitude and appreciation for these handsome reissues.

La Dolce Volta has further demonstrated its commitment in bringing back the indispensable Talich Beethoven now (LDV 121.7, seven CDs), and will soon be adding the less widely known but similarly persuasive Talich survey of all the Mendelssohn quartets, a possibly definitive realization of works too often undervalued. Meanwhile, here’s a little surprise from the past, brought back by a non-commercial organization unknown to most of us. As noted above, the very young Mozart composed several of his quartets in Italy, and six of them, K.155-160, are known as his Milanese Quartets. There happen to be, however, four additional works which used to be called Mozart’s Milanese Quartets: Mozart actually had nothing to do with them, but they constitute an interesting footnote, and were listed in the appendix to the Koechel Catalogue of Mozart’s Works as Anh. 210-213. The longest, at about eleven minutes, is K.Anh. 212, in only two movements; each of the other three is in three brief movements and runs by in less than ten minutes.

There is nothing very Mozartian about these four little quartets, but Georges de Saint-Foix and other respected Mozart scholars accepted them as genuine Mozart for some time. About 50 years ago, however, a little-known German composer named Joseph Schuster (1748-1812) was positively identified as the composer of one of them, and it appears likely that he wrote all four. These curiosities have not been recorded for a long time, but the 1952 Vox recording of all four by the Barchet Quartet has been transferred to CD as part of a two-disc set produced by an organization called Vie di Mozart (“Mozart Ways”), devoted to commemorating the young composer’s experiences in Italy.

The Stuttgart-based Barchet Quartet, one of the mainstays of the Vox catalog in the early years of LP, made some more than respectable recordings of the Mozart quartets, and also, in 1952, recorded these four little fakes, which now share a CD with the Barchets’ 1954 recording of the earliest actual Mozart quartet, K.80. The other disc in this set is given over to the six genuine Mozart Milanese Quartets, K.155-160, recorded in Paris in 1950 for the Concert Hall label by the Pascal Quartet, a fine group remembered by old-time collectors for an impressive Beethoven cycle for the same company. If this set is still available, those interested will be happily surprised by its astonishingly low cost. For information, the organization’s website is www.mozartways.com or its president, Maria Majno, may be contacted at either majno@mozartways.com or majno@quartettomilano.it. There is no catalog number, and in fact no record label: just refer to the two-disc “Quartetti italiani.”

Finally, it’s a pleasure to report that the last missing elements among the Mozart recordings the great Swiss conductor Peter Maag made for Decca in the 1950s have finally turned up on a CD, joining those issued seven years ago in Universal’s Australian Eloquence series. Maag’s very first concerto recordings -- the Piano Concertos No.13 in C major and No.20 in D minor, with Julius Katchen as soloist and the New SO of London, now are on 480 3609, together with a somewhat later recording of the very substantial German Dances K.509, in which the orchestra is the London SO. The C major Concerto had appeared on CD in one of the “Art of Julius Katchen” sets which Decca brought out internationally in 2004, but this is the first CD revival of the D minor Concerto (a work represented in that set by Katchen’s remake with Karl Münchinger and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra) and, if I’m not mistaken, it’s also the first appearance in North America of Maag’s elegant, vigorous, altogether stunning account of the K.509 dances, in any format. And Tully Potter’s annotation, as so often, calls for special praise in its own right, in this case for what it tells us about Peter Maag as well as about the music. (He also provided the notes for the DG Amadeus Mozart set discussed in this piece.)

. . . Richard Freed