Mozart String Quartets

Written by Anne E. Johnson

A classic recording of Mozart’s six so-called Haydn Quartets has been reissued as part of a box set, and that’s just one of a handful of 2018 releases focused on Mozart’s writing for string quartet.

Mozart’s quartets numbers 14-19 were published together in 1785 and dedicated to Haydn at Mozart’s dad’s urging (Leopold always had a nose for how to further his son’s career). There are good reasons Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet: he invented many techniques to allow four bowed stringed instruments to produce an orchestral range of textures and colors, plus established the four-movement structure (modeled on the symphony) as the genre’s standard. Mozart grabbed those ideas and ran with them.

This 1957 recording by the Juilliard Quartet has now been released as part of an 11-disc set from Sony called Juilliard String Quartet: The Complete Epic Recordings 1956-66. YouTube offers only the original LPs (with surprisingly good rendering of the sound, actually), but you can hear the digital remastering on Spotify:

The Juilliard represents state-of-the-art quartet playing from that time. But keep in mind that this was before the science — or religion, depending on your view — of historically informed performance existed at all, and long before it stretched so far forward in time as to include the late 18th century. The relentless vibrato sounds old fashioned, but once you get used to it, the dramatic intelligence of the interpretation is completely captivating, not to mention that the ensemble playing is so perfect that it’s difficult to believe. Here’s Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387:


Another interesting re-release this year is Mozart: The Complete String Quartets by the Leipzig Quartet on DG Gold. The 8-disc set includes all 23 quartets, as well as all four of the first violinists from the Leipzig’s past 18 years. The collection is part of the quartet’s 30th anniversary celebration.

It’s always nice to be reminded of Mozart’s early quartets, which are considered “easy” and therefore don’t get as much professional attention as Nos. 14-23. The Leipzig’s opening of Quartet No. 8 in F major, KV. 168, shows an immediate contrast with the playing style of the Juilliard. Besides the reduced vibrato, there’s a freedom, almost a wildness that keeps each player a separate entity. I’d say it has less to do with performance practice research and more to do with the general 21st century focus on the individual, both in the arts and in every other aspect of life. Whatever the cause, I find the energy effective if not authentic.


The lickety-split pace of the fugal last movement (Allegro) of Quartet No. 13 in D minor is faster than normal. At times it seems rushed, with the Leipzig barely holding it together. Still, there’s a good argument for this tempo: in the Classical period, fourth movements of symphonies and quartets often functioned as fiery showpieces meant to leave the audience gasping.


Hopping south from Leipzig to Vienna, we have the Alban Berg Quartett—and yes, that’s the correct spelling— which recently put out a 7-CD set called Mozart Chamber Music: The Last String Quartets (Warner Classics). Besides Quartets Nos. 14-23, the collection includes a disc of re-released performances with Alfred Brendel (both piano quartets and Mozart’s own arrangement of his Piano Concerto No. 12 in A) and the String Quintets Nos. 3 and 4.

Sometimes I find the Berg’s touch to be too light and filmy, but it works well here in Mozart’s Quartet No. 19 in C major, the “Dissonant,” so-called for the swampy harmonies of the first movement’s slow introduction and definitely not for this buoyant and very tonal closing Allegro. The tempo is restrained, letting each phrase have a distinctive shape. Between repetitions of the galant rondo refrain, the quartet is not afraid to claw at the contrasting material.


The filminess I mentioned is on display in the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major. This second-movement larghetto contains such exquisite writing, and I badly want the violin, viola, and cello to play with as fluid a hand as Brendel does. But the strings’ tone is transparent and thready while Brendel spins out more opaque strands of gold.


Although Haydn is rightly given credit for letting the four instruments of a string quartet enjoy passages of equal voicing, rather than casting the first violin as a monarch served by three accompanists, Mozart offered plenty of moments of contrapuntal splendor in his chamber music.

The two string quintets are rarely played, but reward exploring with an ear to the inner voices: that extra viola is there for a reason! Markus Wolf, the guest violist, stands out in this opening Allegro of the Quintet No. 4 in G minor, K. 516 (quite a late work in the Mozart catalogue). I’m still not crazy about the quartet’s tone overall, but I admire the forward motion and sense of conversation in this performance:


Speaking of the Piano Quartets, there’s a new recording of both of them with the Alexander String Quartet and pianist Joyce Yang on the Alexander’s indie label, Foghorn Classics, distributed by Naxos. The recording is called Apotheosis, Vol. 2. (Apparently, they had planned a Vol. 1 of the quartets, but it has not been released.)

An interesting aspect of the piano quartets versus string quartets is their structure: while — thanks to Haydn – string quartets borrowed the symphony’s four-movement anatomy, both of Mozart’s piano quartets take their formation from sonatas, having three movements. The result is that there is more focus on the contrasting dramatic role of the second movement, a slow between two fasts. How an ensemble handles that responsibility is a good test of its emotional understanding of the work.

“Understated” is the most succinct word I can think of for the Alexander with Yang playing that Larghetto from the Piano Quartet No. 2. Overall, it works. They don’t milk the texture for too much angst, yet there’s just the right amount of longing in Yang’s leaping lines, even if it’s not as pleasurably painful as the Brendel interpretation. My biggest complaint is with the cellist, Sandy Wilson, who, as the quartet’s foundation, should have a much more solid and confident sense of rhythm.

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