Mozart’s string quartets and sonatas are deservedly adored members of the classical canon. But he wrote many other genres of chamber music as well. Three recent recordings remind us to pay attention to some of these less-performed works.
In the early music scene, the Kuijken family of Belgium is revered as a group of experts on historical performance, and now two generations of them have turned their attention to Mozart’s two piano quartets (piano, violin, viola, cello).
This is the first and only recording by the particular ensemble calling themselves the Kuijken Piano Quartet. The violinist, Sigiswald Kuijken, is the brother of renowned Baroque flutist Barthold Kuijken and two other famous siblings, with whom he has recorded and performed on other occasions. The two Kuijken women on this recording (Veronica on fortepiano and Sara on viola) represent the next generation. Michel Boulanger fills out the quartet on cello.
Unfortunately there are no examples from this CD on YouTube, but if you register free at Spotify you can hear the whole album:
Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, K. 493 is first on the record. That’s sensible in dramatic terms, since No. 1 is both more famous and more emotionally intense. In a way, the works are conservative for their time: Both these quartets have three movements (like a sonata) rather than the four movements (like a symphony) that Haydn was contemporaneously making the standard for string quartets.
Period performance practice is always a factor when a Kuijken plays. The fortepiano’s wooden frame – as opposed to the metal frame of a modern piano -- alters the mood of the piece from the brightness we often associate with Mozart. But this is the kind of instrument Mozart was writing for. The string players seem to be trying to match the keyboard’s muted tone, an impression bolstered by a somewhat slow tempo for the opening Allegro movement.
The violin especially came across as weak at first listening. There are many places where Sigiswald’s bow loses contact with the string. But as I continued to listen, I bought into the quartet’s approach. Veronica’s phrasing at the fortepiano is decisive, shaping and leading the expression of the other three. It’s very fine ensemble playing.
The Piano Quartet in g minor, K. 478, was commissioned by a publisher named Hoffmeister to be sold as sheet music to the amateur musicians of Vienna who were always rabid for a new Mozart work to sight-read with friends in their salons. Boy, I bet they were surprised when they sat down to this masterwork! In fact, the piece was so far beyond the reach of Hoffmeister’s customers that he released Mozart from his contract to write two more such works. (Happily for us, Mozart wrote a second piano quartet anyway.)
The hauntingly majestic Andante middle movement of K. 478 is particularly moving. Boulanger’s cello brings a bittersweet longing to the bassline, which the other musicians run with. And the final Rondo practically arches its eyebrows with charming whimsy and gallantry.
Mozart also used the quartet format to create some great music for flute (he was particularly enamored of woodwinds, as you can tell from the solos he gives them in his orchestral writing, not to mention all the wonderful concertos he wrote for them). When celebrated flutist Aurèle Nicolet died in 2016 at the age of 90, it inspired the 2017 reissue by Tudor of his recording of the complete Mozart flute quartets, which had originally been released 40 years ago.
These four works are for flute, violin, viola, and cello – or “bassus,” as Mozart indicated. Nicolet collaborates here with the Munich String Trio.
The two-movement K. Anh. 171, in C major, starts with an Allegro, followed by an elegant theme and variations, which Nicolet and company play with appealing languor. The malleable beat and the amount of vibrato might not conform to today’s standard of historically informed playing, but it’s hard to resist the richness of the sound.
The famous opening Allegro of the K. 285 quartet in D major shines with vibrant force, and these four excellent musicians lean in confidently and crunch into those downbeats. (One of the string players is huffing away, clearly audible on headphones!) The articulation is precise and purposeful.
For evidence of why Nicolet was such a revered flutist, listen to his liquid tone in the Andante movement (another theme and variation) of K. 298 in A major. Such a melodist Mozart was, and Nicolet’s singing of the phrases as if they had words – many scholars have pointed out how Mozart wrote for woodwinds as if they were sopranos in an opera -- will make you hum along. And the Munich string players support him at every cadence.
Although it was one of the most popular types of ensemble in Mozart’s day, his works for trio don’t get nearly the attention one might expect. The Spanish group Trío Vega helps to rectify that with their Complete Mozart Trios (IBS Classical).
In the 17th and 18th century, “trio” referred to a group with three elements: 1) one or two melodic instruments, 2) an instrument that could play chords, and 3) a low instrument to double the bassline. By Mozart’s time, this had been standardized to violin, piano, and cello. He was happy to mix up the traditional roles, letting the cello have solo passages, putting the violin into inner harmonies, and letting the piano do anything he could think of.
Playing on modern instruments, Trío Vega gives a thoughtful performance of the six piano trios. In this Andante grazioso second movement from the Trio No. 4 in E major, K. 542, the musicians seem to be pondering and musing. Their pace and mood follow pianist Yasuyo Yuro’s patient lead.
In the opening Allegro of the Trio No. 6 in G major, K. 564, violinist Marc Paquin begins with a long obbligato line over a busy piano part. When at last he gets to play the melody, it bursts from is instrument as if he could hardly stand to wait. The album is full of enthusiastic moments like this.
The final Rondo minuet of the Trio No. 1 in B flat major, K. 254 shows how much more traditional this early work is than the later trios. The violin is the true star, with piano and cello mostly serving to accompany it. But put on headphones and force yourself pay attention to the relatively simple part for cellist Orfilia Saiz Vega. There is nothing simple about her playing. Clearly she understands both her role in the harmonic progressions and as musical foundation for the group.
Not that I ever complain about new recordings of Mozart’s blockbuster works, but I’m happy to see attention being paid to these chamber pieces. They’re Mozart, after all, so they will always reward close listening when they’re intelligently played.