Mozart: The Prussian Quartets - Chiaroscuro Quartet
Classical - Chamber
Mozart: The Prussian Quartets
After their exciting interpretations of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, the Chiaroscuro Quartet now turns to Mozart’s Prussian Quartets, his last compositions for this formation. These quartets were written for Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and amateur cellist, and offer that instrument an unusually prominent role. The first of the three was composed fairly quickly, in June 1789, but the next two were not completed until the following year, and in the end Mozart’s plan for a set of six came to nothing.
The writing of quartets was never an easy matter for Mozart. However, one would hardly guess that the Prussian quartets were the product of ‘exhausting labour’ (his own words), such is their beguiling ease of workmanship. No. 21 in D major stands out as one of the most melodious chamber compositions of Mozart’s mature period, emanating something of the sensual Mediterranean warmth of the opera Così fan tutte composed shortly afterwards. No. 22 in B flat major also emphasises the importance of melody and gives the ‘royal’ cello some beautiful solos. As for No. 23 in F major, while it is tempting to hear a melancholy, autumnal quality in Mozart’s later works, there is, however, no sense of farewell in this his final string quartet: the spirit of Haydn is everywhere, especially in the finale with its effects borrowed from Hungarian folklore.
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - November 22, 2022
I’ve said it before, and I say it again: This is perfectionism of the highest order. Alina Ibragimova and her colleague musicians remind me of the Austrian ABQ (Alban Berg Quartet) playing the same Prussian Quartets (1990 EMI) with similar perfection. However, comparing them with these new readings by the Chiaroscuro Quartet I discovered why ABQ, apart from the enviable Wiener Klangstil (Viennese sound style) with which the Chiaroscuros cannot compete, never really touched me. With hindsight, I’d say that they played too well, thereby lacking in human presence.
That said, the Chiaroscuro Quartet is in a different league altogether. Playing with gut strings, a period bow, and with no or little vibrato, their approach makes for a pleasing sonority, on condition, though, that tonal precision is fully respected. The result is cleaner, warmer, and more intense.
Mozart’s final set may not have the same musical value as his Haydn Quartets and may not have the emotional character one usually associates with a final set, but Mozart does give all players an equal part and, for obvious reasons (dedicated to the King of Prussia, who was an amateur cellist), a clear cantabile role for the cello. This suits the Chiaroscuros particularly well. Previous recordings of the Quartet have met with universal praise and were lauded for a style that is unique. As I see it: Four individuals, each contributing with a personal input, to create a combined and united, colour palette that charms and seduces the listener.
One may regret that the sound is not at par with previous BIS recordings featuring the Chiaroscuro Quartet, like for instance Haydn: String Quartets Op. 20 1-3 - Chiaroscuro Quartet, engineered by Ingo Petry of Take5, who has done so many excellent recordings for BIS. At times I was disturbed by excessive dynamic contrast, but the violinist Alina Ibragimova, affirms that such is part of their musical commitment.
Be that as it may, in terms of interpretation the Chiaroscuro Quartet has little or no competition, and all three Prussian Quartets on one disc with an amazing 86 minutes of playing time, is not to be disregarded either.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
Copyright © 2022 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net
Review by Mark Werlin - November 25, 2022
These exquisitely realized interpretations are performed with deep feeling and superb technique, and captured in full dynamic range. This SACD can rightly be called a demonstration-quality chamber music recording.
The Chiaroscuro Quartet’s superb SACDs of the Haydn Op. 20 string quartets were my first exposure to this talented ensemble. It was with some curiosity and not a little skepticism that I auditioned the opening bars of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 in D major, K.575. Mozart’s writing for string quartet has never affected me emotionally at the level of Haydn and Beethoven, yet the popularity of the “Prussian” Quartets demonstrates their wide and lasting appeal to musicians and audiences, and called for further investigation.
It had been suggested that the sound level of the album was unusually low, and on cursory listening, that seemed to be the case. An email to BIS prompted the production team to verify that the playback level of the recording as released on SACD, 24/96 download, and streaming platforms, was indeed technically correct. After reading the correspondence thread in which producer Andrew Keener, session/mixing engineer Oscar Torres, and mastering engineer Matthias Spitzbarth graciously responded to my query, I listened much more closely and mindfully to the entire album.
First violinist of the Chiaroscuro Quartet Alina Ibragimova recently spoke about her longtime practice of historically informed performance on this Strad podcast:
Historically informed performance goes beyond playing without vibrato and using gut strings. There are numerous adjustments to the instrument and to the reinterpretation of familiar repertoire that string players have adopted to create distinctive and expressive performances. Ibragimova speaks about adapting her technique to the demands of a gut-strung instrument, allowing more space between notes due to the shorter duration of gut strings’ resonance compared to modern strings.
Cultivating spaciousness, and engaging with the sound of the instrument rather than imposing preconceived ideas of how a piece should sound, informs the Chiaroscuro’s performances of the Mozart quartets. As the works were composed for Friedrich Wilhelm II, a talented amateur cellist, the quartets afford cellist Claire Thirion ample room to play cantabile in richly languorous passages. Tempi are carefully considered, never rushed, which allows the space between notes to breathe.
The production team for the album went to great effort to realize the ensemble’s artistic intentions; in the warm acoustic of the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, the group project a different sound from their earlier recording sessions in Sendesaal Bremen. The Chiaroscuro’s choice to play very softly in quiet passages (which led to my correspondence with BIS), was noted by The Strad’s reviewer David Threacher: “the almost other-worldly sotto voce marked at the opening of K575.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Threacher’s characterization. In that sotto voce passage, the listener is drawn into the timeless space of Mozart’s, and the ensemble’s, creative imagination.
Copyright © 2022 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net
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Comment by Marcus DiBenedetto - December 6, 2022 (1 of 2)
Adrian, Mark (and for an earlier release, John Broggio) are not alone in their high praise for the Chiaroscuro Quartet. Literally, everywhere I went searching out reviews, the ensemble received much praise. I will add my voice to that group. I've listened to the album many times now and I'm impressed with the superb quality of the music. These are "late period" pieces by Mozart and we are fortunate to hear his mature compositions. I'm not a fan of period instruments. In this case, they are perfectly suited for this music. One violin is from the 1500s and the other three string instruments are from the 1700s. We know that string instruments improve with age and it certainly shows here. As an aside, one member of the group noted that the sound from gut strings fades much more quickly than steel. They had to make playing adjustments to get it right. Their hard work gives us glorious music. This is not "background" music. You are drawn into it and listen intently for the contrasting melodies, especially from the cello.
The liner notes are free to download from the eClassical website. There are several YouTube videos that show they typically perform with violins on the left and position the cello and viola on the right. That's how it sounds on my system. I have the multichannel 24/96 download. Soundstage was broad and just deep enough for a quartet. Now, I am motivated to purchase their other albums.
Las Vegas, NV
Comment by Adrian Quanjer - December 8, 2022 (2 of 2)
Marcus, you may have misread my comments. It’s not the playing but the recorded sound that bothered me. Mark raised the question as well, but came to a different conclusion. Could any difference be explained by the fact that Mark and I listen to different versions (Stereo vs Surround)?
If you intend to buy more of this excellent quartet, I recommend Haydn (link in my review).
On the site of JPC people can also leave comments. Unfortunately, most of the time they give stars without telling why. I note that there is a remarkable discrepancy between the Prussian Quartets and the Haydn Quartet referred to above.