The Alexander Quartet Plays Mozart

Alexander Mozart

APOTHEOSIS Vol. 1 / MOZART: String Quartets: No. 20  in D, “Hoffmeister”; Nos. 21-23,  “Prussian” / Alexander String Quartet / Foghorn Classics FCL 2016

In this 2-CD set, the Alexander Quartet revisits Mozart. This recording of his last four quartets is the first release of a planned series that will also include the Clarinet Quintet and other works.

I’m sure that I’m in the minority, but for me a little Mozart goes a long way. Except for the Requiem and parts of Don Giovanni, the works that move me the most are those that he wrote in minor keys, such as the 40th Symphony (Toscanini referred to it as “great tragedy”) and some of the piano concerti and string quintets. In his letters to his father, Mozart made it clear that he composed music to please people, not to expose his own feelings, but that within the numerous catchy tunes he included little twists of harmony to please the few cognoscenti who actually knew a thing or two about music.

That being said, the performers’ approach has as much to do with one’s appreciation of his best music as the scores themselves. Lightweight performances of the 40th Symphony abound; very few conductors, past or present, approached it as tragedy the way Toscanini and Furtwängler did, and only a handful of chamber groups approach these quartets as the Alexander String Quartet does. Without leaning heavily on rhetorical phrasing or unnecessary (and often intrusive) exaggerations of accent or volume, they bring out as much as can be expected in these works. And there are, as Mozart himself promised, little surprises within each of these works, including a surprisingly large number of minor-key passages in the “Hoffmeister” quartet, several more, in fact, than in many of his earlier quartets. Integrating these moments into the musical flow without over-emphasizing them, the Alexander Quartet plays them with a nice, natural flow. And, thank goodness, they do NOT use the anti-historical “straight tone” than afflicts far too many chamber groups nowadays, but rather use a fast, light vibrato which makes their sound fuller as well as more pleasing to the ear.

Indeed, their performances put me in mind of the justly famous ones made many moons ago by the legendary Amadeus Quartet. The Amadeus lacked Alexander’s manicured smoothness of tone and perfect integration; their lead violinist tended to be just a bit wiry; but somehow they managed to blend well enough, and the slight edginess of the first violin actually helped bring out some of the emotion in the music. Alexander’s first violinist, Zakarias Grafilo, plays so beautifully that he could easily be a standout concerto soloist if he so chose (well, technically speaking, so could the other three!), but their long experience as a unit (they’re now in their 38th year, if you can believe it) give them an advantage in reaching group consensus on how various works should be played, and this set is as much a monument to their expertise as their Beethoven and Bartók sets, which I have so highly praised in past reviews.

I think, if one were to search for one word to describe their approach, it would be “integrity,” and by this I don’t mean integrity of sound although that, too, is a key component of their work. They approach everything they play not with the kind of reverence that often makes works boring, but with a sense of adventure. They want to know what they can do with the music that will elevate its spirit and make their interpretations different from the norm, and more often than not, they succeed. I’ve been listening to and appreciating their recordings for more than a decade now, and I am more and more convinced that they are one of the five greatest string quartets in the world right now. (In case you’re wondering, the others I admire as much, for varying reasons, are the Pavel Haas Quartet, Quartetto Energie Nova, Belcea Quartet and Quatuor Mosaïques.)

That being said, I was a bit stunned to realize that the first of the “Prussian” quartets wasn’t nearly as interesting, harmonically or structurally, as the “Hoffmeister” quartet. For me, it’s pretty much in-one-ear-and-out-the-other Mozart, the kind of music that so many listeners love but I find formulaic and simplistic. Alexander does about as much as one can with it, but for me it’s just musical wallpaper, something to play for your snooty friends at your next Sunday brunch. Only the slow second movement has any real features of interest in it. Eric Bromberger’s liner notes say that “One of the surprises” about this quartet” is “how restrained it is.” But, as the notes also point out, Mozart was suffering a surprising and financially devastating downturn in acceptance at the time. Although the notes do not say so, this downturn began with the premieres of Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, works that we now recognize as masterpieces, but which was considered in its day to be too long and rambling as well as insulting to the Ruling Class, the latter a costly mistake on Mozart’s part. Beginning in 1789, he found less and less of a market for his music, including the last three symphonies whose premieres were abandoned when no audience developed for them. Nor did it help when, in 1790, he premiered Così fan Tutte, an opera even more insulting to the upper classes, particularly their women, portraying them as easily-fooled dunces whereas the servant Despina is as sharp as a tack. You don’t mess with the rich and expect to be welcomed with open arms.

Thus the “King of Prussia” quartets were, in a way, a peace offering, a return to his earlier, more easily accessible style. The fact that they didn’t revive his sagging career is a double irony. The second of them is somewhat more interesting than the first (I particularly liked the passage with falling chromatics in the first movement, and there are some interesting touches in the slow movement of the third). But this is what you get when you’re writing to make a living and not purely for art’s sake. Sorry, folks, but I’ve got to call a spade a spade. Clearly, Mozart was a good enough composer that he could crank out works like this in his sleep, but craftsmanship does not equal real inspiration, and as much as the music is logical and pleasing it is not inspired.

As a result, I liked the performances better than the music itself. If, however, you are convinced that these are great works on an exalted level, these are clearly outstanding performances to get.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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