Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In review--Mozart! Tugging at Heartstrings

Jerusalem Quartet
Mozart String Quartets
K. 157, 458 & 589
Harmonia Mundi

Who doesn’t love a composer who can turn 4 stringed instruments into an orchestra? The virtuoso composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart even on one his earliest quartets, K. 157 performed so lovingly by the Jerusalem Quartet, composed this full-bodied work. Although this early quartet is described as sad in the liner notes, the first and third movements sound lively to me. The slower second movement Andante, portrays aching sadness, and definitely sobs of grief. Just listen to the lamenting cello below the surface of the weeping violins and viola. And yet, this movement in all of its woeful melancholy recalls later work by French composer Erik Satie. In fact, I listened to this movement before watching a movie with Satie’s music in the soundtrack, which caused me to draw comparisons.

String Quartet No. 17 in B flat, K. 458 composed much later in Mozart’s short life, recalls the work of JS Bach. If there’s any hint of melancholy in its 4 movements, I don’t hear it. The liner notes, after making comparisons to his senior Haydn mention Bach as an influence. “Mozart explored it in his own way, without imitating his elder’s humorous style or abandoning the minuet for the scherzo, but bringing to light a rich yet simple expression in a flexible contrapuntal idiom which he had recently investigated in a number of transcriptions of pieces by J.S. Bach.”

Interesting enough, I listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos before listening to Mozart’s K. 458 aka “The Hunt” and though I’m hardly an expert on early music, I could hear similarities between Mozart’s quartet and Bach’s repertoire/style. Mozart’s string quartet portrays a regal quality of the baroque era among the usual playfulness found in Mozart’s music. Even the cello (known for its brooding qualities), takes on jauntiness as it engages in a frolic with the other instruments. But then Mozart, the eternal child composed music that speaks to the inner child in all of us, no less so than in this lively string quartet.

The final string quartet on this recording composed towards the end of Mozart’s life, features a full-bodied sound. In fact, “The Prussian Quartet” was what I was referring to at the beginning of this review when I mentioned that Mozart could create an orchestra with 4 instruments. I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to a quartet and not a small chamber orchestra throughout listening to “The Prussian Quartet”. This quartet also portrays a maturity and somber quality found more often in Mozart’s later work, such as his clarinet concerto. Listening to this quartet, I get a sense of life weighing heavily on the composer’s soul. And true enough, Mozart had lost his father, money was tight, and there were pressures in his career as a freelance musician for him to contend. The times had changed.

This is the first recording I’ve heard by The Jerusalem Quartet. I’m impressed with the four gifted string players who perform with sensitivity and passion. The musicians know their way around Mozart and bring out the beauty, sadness, and playfulness of the string quartets. All and all I find this recording, filled with delightful performances of one of the most brilliant of composers to have ever walked the earth.


Note: Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov borrowed the late Jacqueline du Pre's cello for this recording.