Beautiful recordings of Mozart’s late string quartets by the Quatuor van Kuijk

Mozart’s string quartets

I must admit that for years I somewhat ignored Mozart’s chamber music, or actually quite a bit of Mozart’s other works as well (more to come in future posts). Mozart really was for me my god in terms of operatic works, the entire DaPonte suite will always be my favourite operas ever, and I increasingly discover other masterpieces like Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. On string quartets, I simply thought that nothing can beat Beethoven and Haydn, that I’d been listening to for years. I was wrong, obviously.

A young French string quartet, the Quatuor Van Kuijk, named after first violin Nicolas Van Kuijk, joined by Sylvain Favre-Bulle, Emmanuel François and Anthony Kondo, convinced me otherwise. It is actually several Chocs by French Classica magazine that flagged them to me.

A particular new favourite turned out to Mozart’s latest quartet, KV465, also known as “Dissonance“.

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 – Quatuor van Kuijk (Alpha 2016)

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 - Quatuor van Kuijk Alpha 2016 24/96

But let’s start with KV428, another gem of a string quartet, very clearly inspired by (and even dedicated to) Joseph Haydn’s quartets op. 33, there is so much to discover. It is clearly showing Mozart’s total mastery of making melodies sing. But there’s so much more to it, with a lot of underlying complexity of the different voices interacting like a true dialogue. Some smarter people than me even said it reminds them of Brahms, meaning that Mozart here was potentially 100 years ahead of his time.

You get a Divertimento (KV136) as a nice filler, truly enjoyable in the very meaning of the word (divertire meaning “to amuse”).

The real highlight of this album is KV465, a nearly 30 min long masterpiece, that starts with the dissonances that must have totally shocked the audience at the time, and still puzzles today’s audiences when you hear it for the first time. The “seeking” nearly 2 minutes long intro resolves into one of Mozart’s true masterpieces. This was composed alongside some of my all time favourites of Mozart, like his piano concertos KV466 and 467 (nos. 20 & 21 respectively), and you can hear the same mastery of both melody and structure here.

Not sure why I ignored these pieces for so long, I really recommend you check them out.

Watch this space, I’ll be shortly writing about another outstanding recording of KV465.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Schumann’s underrated piano chamber music beautifully played by the Trio Wanderer

Robert Schumann

I haven’t written very many entries on Schumann yet. That is not because I don’t like this composer.

In fact, his symphonies, typically either played by Szell, Gardiner, or more recently, Nézet-Seguin (that I really need to review here), Dausgaard (that I even mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums), or Rattle, are in very heavy rotation on my hifi.

I listen to his piano concerto much less frequently, just because I probably overplayed it in my youth. That said, going back to Lipatti’s legendary performance every once in a while is a true pleasure. For more modern performances, it is also worth going with Leif Ove Andsnes, or if you prefer a period piano, Alexander Melnikov.

His solo piano music gets even less frequently played here, which is a pity, as there are beautiful pieces like the Davidsbündlertänze, the Etudes Symphoniques, or Kreisleriana. I really don’t know why I don’t play them more often, maybe I should just actively seek them out more.

Now, when we get to Schumann’s chamber music, I must admit I barely played it until recently. I purchased the three piano trios in a very good version with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, as they were included in their excellent recordings of the concertos for piano, violin, and cello. However, I mostly focused my attention to the orchestral works, not giving the chamber works enough attention.

My interest in Schumann’s chamber music grew when I recently purchased a reference version of Brahms’ piano quintet by the Artemis Quartet with Leif Ove Andsnes (not yet reviewed here), that also included Schumann’s piano quartet (in an equally exellent performance)

So when the following album was released recently, I was immediately very interested:

Schumann: Complete Trios / Piano Quartet / Piano Quintet – Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi 2021)

Robert Schumann Complete PIano Trios PIano Quartet Piano Quintet Trio Wanderer Christophe Gaugué Catherine Montier Harmonia Mundi 2021

I already own an excellent box by this French trio, that consistently records very strong performances, of the complete Beethoven trios.

I really like these performances here as well. They are more polished that the somewhat rougher performances of the trios by Melnikov/Faust/Queyras mentioned above (the period instruments clearly make a difference), but there is beauty all along.

The piano quintet performance doesn’t get the brilliance of the above mentioned Artemis recording, but there is beautiful “singing” in the melodies everywhere.

I really don’t have a good reference for the piano quartet in my collection, so as with this entire review, take my comments here with a big grain of salt, but I really like what I hear as well.

Overall, a truly enjoyable box.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 & 2 by the Pavel Haas Quartet – Excellent

Bedřich Smetana

I haven’t written much about the other famous Czech composer (that said, even Dvorak doesn’t have a post dedicated to one of his works yet on this blog, I should change that).

As a kid I listened to The Moldau (or more correctly Vltava) from his Ma Vlast patriotic cycle A LOT. It is one of those classics that nearly everybody has heard at some point. My only issue is that I’ve heard it so much that I barely touch it any more these days. I’ll probably need to rediscover the entire work more systematically (and I have two Kubelik recordings in my library, with Boston and the Czech Philhamonic orchestra to do so).

That said, I have only a small number of Smetana recordings in my library overall, so I may not be the most qualified reviewers of his work. For the string quartets I’m going to write about I only have one other recording, by the Stamitz Quartet. So keep this in mind when you read my comments below.

Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 & 2 – Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon 2015)

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 & 2 - Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
Pavel Has

The two string quartets are quite different in nature. One is what you’d expect from a late romantic composer of Bohemia, a lot of flowing melodies and a lot of well, “romanticism” (however you want to define that).

The 2nd string quartet is much less accessible, it was written in the very last years of the composer as he was already deaf. Yes, an eery parallel to Beethoven’s late string quartets, right? In any case both are very much worth discovering.

I’ve praised the Pavel Haas Quartet many times, for their Schubert (here and here), which even made it into my list of the 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I had even previously mentioned this particular album, as it had received the Gramophone Award for Chamber in 2015.

Why did I decide to write about this album again then? I must admit over the time (the original review was published in 2015) this album really grew on me, particularly the less accessible no. 2. I by now truly love particularly the Largo Sostenuto. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of string quartets, making it by now one of my favourite genres of classical music. So naturally, tastes evolve (which really is a good thing. Stay curious!). I encourage you to do the same, regularly try to rediscover things you may already have in your library, or go a bit beyond your comfort zone in the streaming service of your choice!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

The Complete Beethoven String Quartets by the Takács Quartet – A Masterpiece

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I haven’t written that much yet about Beethoven’s string quartets. It is a hard to cover vast subject of 16 masterpieces, from the early ones that are still very reminiscent of Haydn, to the middle ones (mainly the Rasumovksy ones), that clearly match the power of the major Beethoven symphonies, to the entirely different universe that are the late quartets, that enter completely unheard harmonic complexities, that go even beyond his symphonic works.

How can one quartet really do them all justice? Typically, reviewers recommend getting different boxes for the different periods, and they are right.

However, some outstanding artists are able to just set a standard for all three periods. And the Takács Quartet is just one of them.

When Decca re-released the complete Beethoven box that was originally recorded in the early 2000s, I had to go back to it. I’m very glad I did, I was again blown away.

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets – Takács Quartet (Decca 2017 Remaster)

Takacs Quartet Beethoven Complete String Quartets Decca 24 48 2017 remaster

The Takacs Quartet has been around since 1975! They are probably one of the most outstanding string quartets ever. I’ve praised the Takacs´ several times already (See for example here my review of their fantastic Schubert), and remain a great fan of them.

In this box, in the early quartets of op. 18, you get all the Viennese lightness. These are just a pleasure to listen to. These works need to “swing”, and the Takacs just pull it off.

Moving to the more serious op. 59, the Takacs´switch gear appropriately. Take quartet no. 9, op. 59 no. 3, that starts with a very “serious” Andante con moto. This part occasionally reminds me of a Mahler symphony. And here, you get the full weight and emotional power this work requires, before moving on to the Allegro part, that gives you the Beethoven you are most likely to think of when you hear the name.

The late quartets again are a completely different animal. Let’s take for example op. 127. I have a pretty direct comparison, having only recently heard this played live by the equally fantastic Quatuor Ébène (see my concert review here). Comparing the two approaches here, let´s say we could characterise the Ébène’s live approach with “Passion”, and the Takacs’s with “Precision”. These are obviously simplifications, but you get the idea. Both are absolutely fantastic versions, and show you how much there is to discover in these masterworks, that are unfortunately not very approachable for the beginner. Give them some time, and they will grow on you.

If you only ever wanted to own one version of the Beethoven string quartets, this really would be the one to have. I´d strongly advise against having only one version, there are so many others to discover, and Beethoven’s quartets really are among the most outstanding masterpieces the Western world ever produced.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Prostudiomasters)

Quatuor Ebène Plays Mozart & Beethoven – Tonhalle Zürich – June 11, 2017 – A Review

Quatuor Ebène

About a year ago I wrote about Quatuor Ebènes outstanding Schubert recording with Gautier Capuçon. For me, it was the album that should have won the Gramphone awards in 2016 in their category.

My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.

So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017

Tonhalle Zürich

A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.

Quatuor Ebene Tonhalle
Detail of Tonhalle Zürich Lobby

 

Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.

As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.

Maag Music Hall
Maag Music Hall back in January 2017

 

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017

But back to the good old Tonhalle.

Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black,  as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Kleiner Saal Jun 11, 2017
Quatuor Ebène

But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.

They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.

The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.

They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.

It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.

Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.

After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?

But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.

After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.

At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.

I couldn’t have said it better.

What a concert. Magnificent