Yang and the Alexander Quartet Do Mozart

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APOTHEOSIS Vol. 2 / MOZART: Piano Quartets: in g min., K. 478; in Eb, K. 493 / Joyce Yang, pno; Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics CD2018

Those readers who have been following my reviews for several years know that I place the Alexander String Quartet among the elite groups of their type in the world, and in my view are the best such American group (particularly now that the belated Colorado String Quartet, which was certainly their peer, is no more). In person they play a fairly diverse repertoire, including modern works, but on records they pretty much stick to older repertoire such as this.

Nonetheless, they manage to infuse this more conventionally-written music with life and drive that belies its age, and this disc is no exception. An ex-friend of mine, who cut himself off from me 20 years ago, used to say that Mozart was always more expressive in minor keys than in major, pointing to the string quintets, piano concerti (Nos. 20 and 24) and Symphony No. 40, all of which are considered among his greatest works (not to mention the overture and finale of Don Giovanni and portions of the Requiem), and the piano quartet in G minor is no exception. For whatever reason, Mozart seemed to ignore his usual rule of writing music that “pleased the public without their being aware of the subtle little touches I threw in” and, however temporarily, bared his own feelings in music.

No, this quartet is not quite as intense as the Piano Concerto No. 20 or the Symphony No. 40, but it clearly exists in a different emotional world from his major-key works, and the Alexander players (here omitting 2nd violinist Frederick Lifsitz) give it their all. Pianist Joyce Yang, their most frequent collaborator (cellist Sandy Alexander has told me via email that she is practically a fifth member of the group), is also outstanding here. I’ve heard a couple of Yang’s solo recital discs, and although she is a very good soloist, on a par with Andras Schiff or Anne-Marie McDermott, she really outdoes herself as an ensemble player (as do Schiff and McDermott). Her combination of nuance, clarity and just enough emotion complement the Alexander strings (here playing on a special group of instruments, built in 1987 but modeled on 1705-1709 Stradivari loaned by the Ellen M. Egger Quartet). This is absolutely world-class playing; I would pit them not only against the very finest of modern European groups, but also against such legendary names as the Amar, Capet, Busch and early (1932-38, their real prime) Budapest Quartets. Not a note or phrase is played without careful attention to dynamics, shading, or emotion. They think and breathe together, and this includes Yang on piano. Just listen, for instance, to the breathtaking unity of thought and flow in the crescendo-diminuendo phrases in the first quartet’s slow movement which, although in the major, is as deeply felt as the minor-key first movement.

The quartet in Eb is one of Mozart’s most lyrical works, and here the players imbue it with a tender, spacious reading, also full of nuance. Indeed, there almost seems to be a feeling of loss or sorrow in the way they play it, caressing each note in the strings as the piano part—less sensitive in feeling, but commenting on the musical progression—weaves it way in and out of the ensemble. And, lo and behold, the final movement (“Allegretto”) dips into the minor, providing an effective contrast with the major-key theme statements.

This is surely one of the finest recording of these two works ever committed to disc. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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