Mozart’s mature string quartets are among my favorite music. There are ten of them: a set of six dedicated to the composer’s friend and mentor Haydn; a final three written for the King of Prussia, who was a keen amateur cellist; and a single, seventh in the series, called the Hoffmeister. Hoffmeister was a music publisher in Vienna and it’s thought that Mozart wrote it for him in payment of a debt.
Although Mozart wrote 23 string quartets in all, these last ten are in a class of their own. He’s on record as saying that they had cost him much labor, and we also know of an evening when Haydn, Mozart’s father Leopold and Mozart himself (on viola) played some of them through, Haydn telling Leopold afterwards that his son was one of the greatest musical geniuses, living or dead.
What, then, are the recordings to be recommended? Most are on CD, and many at bargain prices where the recordings are none too new. This doesn’t matter as it’s a relatively easy matter to record just four instruments at very high quality.
Also, many quartets issue sets, either of the six “Haydn” quartets or of all ten. These are always good value for money, and in addition I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys one of these supreme masterpieces who doesn’t want to own all of them.
I naturally haven’t heard all the sets on offer, but I do know those by the Hagen Quartet, the Chilingirian Quartet, the Alban Berg Quartet, the Talich Quartet and the (French) Quatuor Ysaye.
There has been some controversy over the Alban Berg Quartet’s Mozart CDs, with the hostile critics claiming that the lineup became too loud and full of itself, and that their early recordings on the Teldec label were greatly preferable. Luckily, a boxed set of these early recordings, made between 1971 and 1979, is available at a bargain price and includes all ten of Mozart’s mature works in the medium.
The Hagen Quartet is always a front-runner in any discussion of the quartet repertoire. With Mozart, they offer all 23 works, plus the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik arranged for quartet. If you find these as single CDs it’s possible to buy the ten mature works on four CDs, beginning with K.387 on CD 4.
Mozart’s works are all followed by a number preceded by the letter “K.” This is because one Ludwig Ritter von Kochel published a complete Mozart catalogue, after which works were identified by their Kochel number. The ten mature quartets begin with K.387 and end with K.590.
The Ysaye Quartet, recording just the six “Haydn” quartets in the version I heard, were too forceful for me. I like chamber music to be either grand or intimate, and the Ysaye versions are not quite either.
The Talich Quartet, however, are excellent, and they too issue all 23 quartets on seven CDs. Various other compilations are on offer from Talich, such as the Dissonance quartet paired with the Clarinet Quintet on the Calliope label. Dissonance is one of the quartets dedicated to Haydn, and it acquired this name on account of the slow introduction to the first movement which was thought to explore unusual harmonies for its era.
Finally, the Chilingirian Quartet. Their versions have almost everything. They’re both sensuous and disciplined, finely played and full of feeling. And so I’m going to rate them as first choice, with the versions by the Hagen Quartet a fairly close second — but with one crucial reservation.