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Hyperion Records

CDA67373 - Mozart: Piano Quartets
A Genteel Gathering (1746) by Christian Wilhelm Dietrich (1712-1774)
AKG London

Recording details: December 2002
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2003
Total duration: 62 minutes 44 seconds


'It is in fact clear from the opening that this is a performance to reckon with, exemplified by its careful measured tempo, its poise and its subtle handling of the balance between strings and piano. A real winner, this disc; warmly recommended' (Gramophone)

'For freshness, insight and sheer beauty of tone and phrase, this new disc takes the palm … it's pure joy from first to last and I urge you to add it to your shelves' (BBC Music Magazine)

'…one of the happiest musical unions of recent times—stylish, spirited and spontaneous' (The Daily Telegraph)

'These are deeply musical performances, perceptive and satisfying, of two masterpieces' (International Record Review)

'Truly excellent' (Classic FM Magazine)

'The Leopold Trio gives a crisp, clear and engaging performance' (The Strad)

'Listening to these brand new Hyperion performances by The Leopold String Trio and pianist Paul Lewis got me thinking about elegance in a new way … There isn't a harsh note in the entire recording … These performances have flair and panache. I can remember no recording that presents these two masterful quartets so gracefully rendered as this one by The Leopold String Trio and Lewis.' (Fanfare, USA)

Piano Quartets
Allegro  [14'36]
Andante  [7'26]
Rondo: Allegro  [7'28]
Allegro  [14'41]
Larghetto  [9'30]
Allegretto  [9'03]

Mozart at his most fetching! Neither Beethoven in his maturity nor Haydn wrote for the piano quartet—piano with string trio—yet this oddly neglected instrumental combination inspired Mozart to pen these mature works that were to be the first masterpieces of the genre. Mozart delights in having richer textures than in the more common piano trio and the wider variety of sonorities than in the string quartet. Indeed, so much did he enjoy himself in the composition that he lost the commission to write the last two of the three works here after the publisher Hoffmeister found the first too intricate and difficult for the amateur market! (Hoffmeister did at least let the composer keep the advance he had received!) But his enthusiasm pushed him to write them anyway and what has come down to us makes a wonderful compendium of Mozart's genius, his resourceful technical felicity as well as that deft kaleidoscope of emotional narrative.

Following the Leopold Trio's acclaimed renderings of the great String Divertimento (CDA67246), this release will for many be a revelation and for all of us a source of deep gratification. Paul Lewis, a pupil of Alfred Brendel and here making his Hyperion debut, is by training and temperament steeped in the Viennese classics, bringing to these special works both the authority and youthfulness they merit.

Other recommended albums
'Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 16 – Thomas Allen' (CDJ33016)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 16 – Thomas Allen
Buy by post £10.50 CDJ33016 
'Medtner: Piano Concerto No 1 & Piano Quintet' (CDA66744)
Medtner: Piano Concerto No 1 & Piano Quintet
Buy by post £10.50 CDA66744 

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Emperor Joseph II’s famous comment on Mozart’s first Viennese opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart, and too beautiful for our ears’) is probably apocryphal. But the alleged royal critique does point to a recurrent problem in Mozart’s music for eighteenth-century listeners. The richness, intricacy and emotional ambivalence, especially in the works from the mid-1780s onwards, that so delight us today were often simply bewildering to his contemporaries. Reviewing the six string quartets dedicated to Haydn, the writer in Cramer’s Magazin der Musik 9 complained that they were ‘too highly seasoned—and whose palette can endure that for long?’. The composer Karl von Dittersdorf likewise criticised the ‘overwhelming and unrelenting artfulness’ of the ‘Haydn’ quartets and accused Mozart of being too ‘prodigal’ with his ideas. But it was not only the quartets that caused consternation. Don Giovanni, for instance, was a triumph in Prague (where Mozart rightly claimed he was ‘understood’ more than anywhere else) but only a mixed success in Vienna. Joseph II, more reliably documented this time, pronounced that ‘Mozard’s (sic) music is certainly too difficult to be sung’. And though he was later to be proved spectacularly wrong, one German critic summed up the reactions of many in the late 1780s when he wrote: ‘The beauty, greatness and nobility of the music for Don Juan will never appeal anywhere to more than a handful of the elect. It is not music to everyone’s taste, merely tickling the ear and letting the heart starve.’

If Don Giovanni was ‘too difficult to be sung’, the G minor Piano Quartet K478, completed on 16 October 1785, was apparently too difficult to be played. According to the biography of Mozart by Georg Nissen (second husband of Constanze Mozart), the work was to be the first of three piano quartets commissioned by the composer and publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. But, not surprisingly given its scale and technical and expressive complexity, the quartet proved unpopular with the amateur market; and, in Nissen’s words, Hoffmeister ‘made Mozart a present of the advance payment he had already received, on condition that he should not write the other two quartets contracted for’.

Mozart, though, evidently relished the challenge of what was then a novel medium, without significant precedents (though by a strange coincidence the fourteen-year-old Beethoven had composed three piano quartets earlier that same year, 1785). And during the first run of Figaro in May 1786 he composed a second piano quartet, in E flat, completed on 3 June and published the following year by the firm of Artaria. Like many of Mozart’s initially ‘difficult’ works, both quartets overcame early resistance and made their way in France, England and Germany. And on 30 November 1791, five days before Mozart’s death, the critic of the Musikalische Korrespondenz der Teutschen Filarmonischen Gesellschaft noted that the E flat Quartet was ‘written with that fire of the imagination and that correctness which has won for Herr M. the reputation of one of the best composers in Germany’.

In the G minor Piano Quartet eighteenth-century players and listeners had to contend not only with an unfamiliar and technically demanding medium (both string and keyboard parts would have been beyond most amateurs), but also with one of Mozart’s most complex and passionate first movements, permeated by its implacable unison opening gesture. Though Mozart sometimes treats the keyboard part in the virtuoso style of his great Viennese piano concertos, the dialogues and contrapuntal interplay between keyboard and strings—above all in the strenuous development—are in the spirit of true chamber music. After the first movement’s turbulent coda, the B flat Andante, with its sensuous chromaticism and delicately ornate passagework (shared between all four instruments), brings necessary balm. Unusually for a Mozart work in the minor key, the finale sets out immediately in a blithe, unclouded G major. Formally this is an expansive sonata rondo (a design found in many of Mozart’s Viennese piano concertos) with one hummable tune after another, a couple of which could have come straight from the mouth of Papageno. But there is drama here as well as hedonistic delight. And the central development recalls the spirit of the first movement, firstly in exchanges between imperious piano and beseeching strings, and then in a passage of stormy dialogue based on a fragment of the main theme.

Typically of Mozart in E flat, the Quartet K493 is a far more mellow and genial work with, in the first movement, something of the relaxed grandeur of the recently composed E flat Piano Concerto, K482. As in the concerto, the first movement has an almost reckless profusion of lyrical themes, which expand and proliferate at leisure. Most pervasive and influential is the theme that establishes the dominant key, B flat, initiated by the piano and immediately echoed by the violin. This idea fertilises the whole of the widely modulating development (moving from B flat minor and D flat major as far afield as D minor), where strings engage in close imitative dialogue against a background of rapid keyboard scales and arpeggios—a common texture in Mozart’s piano concertos. When this theme reappears in the recapitulation on violin and viola, with the cello following in imitation, it again starts in B flat—all wrong for this point in the movement—before the piano smoothly restores the home key of E flat. This ‘wrong key’ entry in the recapitulation demands a resolution in the coda, where the strings reiterate the theme in three-part canon with the simplest tonic and dominant harmony.

The A flat Larghetto, in full sonata form, shares the warmth and chromatic richness of the G minor Quartet’s Andante. But it is a more intense, less decorative, movement, with an impassioned development that begins with a dramatic re-interpretation of the opening phrase—a moment echoed, with another new twist, at the start of the coda. Mozart’s sketches reveal that he discarded two drafts of the finale’s gavotte-like theme before arriving at a version that satisfied him. Again there is an abundance of graceful and piquant melody, though the movement’s chief protagonist is an idea that at first seems to be merely transitional: a brusque unison for the three strings answered by a pleading syncopated phrase on the piano. This idea is rarely absent for long, chromatically expanded just before the initial return of the main theme and, in an echo of the first movement, sounded in close canonic imitation in the coda.

Richard Wigmore © 2003

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