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Hyperion Records

CDH55094 - Mozart: String Quartets K499 & 589
Photograph by Power Pix.
Recording details: September 1990
Kimpton Parish Church, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: May 2002
Total duration: 61 minutes 22 seconds

'This is glorious, mature Mozart and if you don’t buy any other Mozart albums in this bi-centenary year, you will be amply rewarded by these marvellous quartets' (Braille Music Magazine)

'Le Quatuor Salomon mérite assurément des éloges, dus au niveau de ses interprètes comme à l'affirmation d'une conception éprise de rigeur' (Diapason, France)

String Quartets K499 & 589
Allegretto  [14'00]
Adagio  [8'10]
Allegretto  [9'08]
Allegro  [8'56]
Larghetto  [6'20]
Allegro assai  [3'40]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The impression is often given that Mozart, uniquely among the great classical composers, was able to compose easily and quickly without the aid of sketches. True, we have examples of astonishing facility: he is said to have written the overture to Don Giovanni in a single night, and the whole of La Clemenza di Tito in eighteen days. But his mature string quartets certainly cost him a great deal of effort. He was occupied on and off for nearly three years with the six quartets he published as Opus 10 in 1785, and in the dedication to Joseph Haydn he wrote that they were the fruit of a ‘long and very laborious effort’. It was no exaggeration, for an abnormal number of sketches and revisions survive for them; Mozart evidently found it difficult to come to terms with Haydn’s mature string quartet style, as exemplified most recently by the Opus 33 quartets of 1781.

Mozart did not complete another set of quartets after the six dedicated to Haydn, but he did not neglect the medium. And there is evidence that it continued to give him trouble. His next quartet was the single one in D major known to us as the ‘Hoffmeister’, K499, so called because it was issued in Vienna in 1786 by the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812). Hoffmeister was also a composer and had started a publishing firm two years before to print his own music; he soon expanded the business to include orchestral works and sets of chamber music by his contemporaries, including Haydn, Vanhal, Albrechtsberger and Mozart. Mozart and Hoffmeister were friends and fellow-Freemasons. Their dealings apparently began in the autumn of 1785, when Hoffmeister published Mozart’s G minor Piano Quartet, K478. Mozart based one of the movements of his Flute Quartet in A major, K298, written sometime in 1786/7, on a song by Hoffmeister.

An advertisement survives for the ‘Hoffmeister’ Quartet in which the publisher wrote that it was written ‘with that fire of the imagination and that correctness which long since won for Herr M. the reputation of one of the best composers in Germany’. He added that even the Minuet was ‘composed with an ingenuity (being interwoven with canonic imitations) that one not infrequently finds wanting in other such compositions’. The ‘ingenuity’ that Hoffmeister responded to was the ability, demonstrated to a high degree in Haydn’s Opus 33, to combine the two idioms of the contemporary string quartet: the light, divertimento-like quality of, say, Mozart’s own early works in the form, and the serious, contrapuntal tradition of the mainstream Viennese quartet, exemplified by works by Monn, Albrechtsberger and Gassmann. In the new quartet style the melodies are supported not just by harmony, but by accompanying motifs that have their own role to play in the musical argument; it was a civilised discourse between equals, rather than a monologue or a four-way dispute.

The same quality is also found, though in a more relaxed form, in the three ‘Prussian’ quartets, K575 in D, K589 in B flat, and K590 in F, Mozart’s last works in the medium. They were written in 1789/90 as the result of a commission from the King of Prussia, Frederick II, obtained during the composer’s visit to north Germany in the spring of 1789. Mozart evidently intended a set of six quartets, and hoped that they would solve his financial problems, but by May 1790 he was complaining that worry over his debts had prevented him from finishing them, and in a letter to his creditor Michael Puchberg the next month he admitted that he had ‘now been forced to give away my quartets (that exhausting labour) for a mere song, simply in order to have cash in hand to meet my present difficulties’. The published edition of the three completed quartets, issued by Artaria shortly after Mozart’s death, contains no reference to the Prussian king and his commission. It used to be thought that Mozart, eager to get the quartets started, based parts of them on sketches of uncompleted works from the early 1770s, the period of his Italian journeys and his first spate of quartet-writing. The argument has now been disproved, but many critics have noticed that the three works have a relaxed, charming character that seems to hark back to Mozart’s early ‘Italian’ quartets; the mood, set by his recurring use of the tempo Allegretto, is certainly far removed from the pithy seriousness of the set dedicated to Haydn.

The explanation seems to lie in the special terms of Frederick William’s commission. The Prussian king was a keen amateur cellist, and collected chamber music with prominent cello parts. In 1786, the year of his accession, he obtained quartets of this sort from Pleyel, and engaged Boccherini—who had developed the string quintet with two cellos—as his chamber composer. The next year Frederick William commissioned a set of quartets from Haydn, his Opus 50. Haydn, as we might expect, did not respond simply by giving the cello concerto-like passages, for that would have fatally loosened his spare, concentrated musical architecture. Instead, he brought the cello into the musical argument by using the sort of motivic, semi-contrapuntal writing that he had just developed for his ‘Seven Last Words’; he made its quartet version about the time he began Opus 50. By 1789, however, Mozart had taken what he needed from Haydn’s quartet style, and was ready to move in a different direction. The royal cellist is indulged in expansive solos that take his instrument high into the treble clef; and to even things up the other members of the ensemble are given similar material. The result at times is rather like a sinfonia concertante without orchestra; or, more precisely, like the type of quatuor concertant that was popular in France, and had been popularised by Boccherini (who worked mainly in Spain, but whose chamber music was mostly published in Paris). Boccherini’s Opus 24 quartets of 1777 also have brilliant cello parts, and may be the immediate models of Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ quartets.

It may be that Mozart failed to complete the Prussian quartets not just because he was pressed for money. Many writers have noticed echoes of Figaro and Così fan tutte in them (Così was written and produced while he was struggling with them), and Mozart may eventually have found that the brilliant, concertante writing he gave to all four stringed instruments was more naturally deployed in opera or the concerto. We may feel that Mozart’s instinct was correct, for in the subsequent history of the classical string quartet the quatuor concertant turned out to be a blind alley, shunned by the great composers. But the ‘Prussian’ quartets certainly contain a wealth of wonderful music, and their troubled genesis gives them a special place in Mozart’s works.

Peter Holman © 1991

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