Hyperion Records

String Quartet in B flat major, K589
one of Mozart's so-called Prussian Quartets

'Mozart: String Quartets K499 & 589' (CDA66458)
Mozart: String Quartets K499 & 589
Movement 1: Allegro
Track 5 on CDA66458 [8'56] Archive Service
Movement 2: Larghetto
Track 6 on CDA66458 [6'20] Archive Service
Movement 3: Menuetto: Moderato
Track 7 on CDA66458 [7'36] Archive Service
Movement 4: Allegro assai
Track 8 on CDA66458 [3'40] Archive Service

String Quartet in B flat major, K589
The three ‘Prussian’ quartets, K575 in D, K589 in B flat, and K590 in F, are 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.

from notes by Peter Holman © 1991

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