Nimbus have already released the American Quartet's performances of nine of the Mozart String Quartets, originally issued on MusicMasters, on NI2508-10. This well-filled second volume, containing 14 quartets, completes the 6-CD set of all Mozart's 23 String Quartets. Dominy Clements gave a warm welcome to that first volume just over a year ago and I find myself very much in agreement with what he said then:
If you are looking for a beautifully recorded set of Mozart string quartets played with an almost absolute absence of flaws or intrusive 'interpretation' then these recordings by the American Quartet will be right up your street.
As on the earlier set, each CD combines early and later works; the range is even greater here than before, from the apprentice piece, K80, written in 1770 and revised a few years later, to K590, the third of the 'Prussian' Quartets and his last Quartet (1789). If, for example, No.17, the 'Hunt' Quartet, K458 steals the show on the first disc, it isn't due to the advocacy of the players, who perform the earlier works with just the same loving care. Therein lies my slight reservation about these performances: whilst the two earlier works which open the first CD receive almost ideal performances, works such as K458 don't need quite so much tenderness - indeed, they benefit from a slightly tougher approach than they receive here. The American Quartet's hunt is a rather genteel affair, more like a canter through some beautiful countryside than a rousing hunt. Daniel Avshalomov's note suggesting that this is the most approachable of Mozart's quartets - 'we know how we'll feel going on to play the work' - puts its finger on the problem: their Hunt is just a little too predictable .
It's not a matter of tempo: the Americans' opening movement is actually slightly faster than my benchmark performance by the Quartetto Italiano, yet the Italian players have the momentum which the Americans lack. The Italians also add weight to their performance by including repeats which the American players ignore - the omissions are the price which has to be paid for what appears to be the extreme generosity of offering 14 Quartets on three CDs.
The performance of Quartet No.23, K590, which rounds off the first CD does much to make amends with extremely refined playing, but here, too, the Quartetto Italiano find greater depth. After a rather gemütlich account of the first three movement, the finale scurries just a little too much.
The performance of Quartet No.18, K464, which opens the second CD starts well and the performance overall does much to make up for the shortcomings of the end of the first CD. In fact, I warmed to the performances on this second disc much more than I did to those on the first. I appreciated the sheer beauty of the playing, on well-matched Stradivarius instruments, much more; I missed the vigour and drama of the Quartetto Italiano much less and was far less troubled by the paucity of repeats.
In K464 the American Quartet offer a slightly slower account of the opening Allegro than the Quartetto Italiano, so their account of this movement and of the work in general proves the exception to my general feeling that they slightly underplay the tensions and the drama inherent in the music. Their performance of the finale, however, does seem a little lightweight after the full value which they give to the preceding Andante, largely because they omit repeats which the Italians observe, thereby reducing the movement to much less than half the length of the Andante. The Nimbus booklet gives the tempo for the finale as Allegretto non troppo; the Philips booklet and the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe give it as Allegro non troppo.
The American Quartet's performance comes in even better sound. Their version could (just) have run to the extra three minutes in this movement and an extra 5 minutes overall and still fitted onto the 4-quartet CD and this would have given the movement the extra stature which the other two groups find in it. The American Quartet find just a little less passion in the opening Adagio than the Italians - never mind that 21st-century ears are not troubled by the 'dissonances' in any of these performances - and there is just a little less depth to their happiness in the ensuing Allegro. Only by comparison with the Italians, however, do these minor shortcomings manifest themselves and, though their omission of repeats brings them in at two-and-a-half minutes shorter than the Emersons, I prefer the American Quartet to the latter. Thereafter the performance of the remaining movements of this work is excellent, as is that of the other Quartets, though the very early K80 which follows inevitably sounds by comparison like the apprentice work that it is. It is, nevertheless, well worth hearing in such a fine performance.
The Nimbus recording is very good throughout and the set is well presented, with an attractively illustrated booklet of notes. The cover depicts the four decorated Stradivarius instruments and the notes by Daniel Avshalomov are informative and illuminating, if a little idiosyncratic at times. The K numbers given in the booklet are those from the Köchel1 catalogue; for greater clarity, I've added the K6 numbers in my heading.
There is a great deal to be said for having all Mozart's String Quartets played by the same performers. So, if it's a complete set that you're looking for, the two Nimbus boxes will do nicely. If something of this quality at this very reasonable price had been around when I was discovering Mozart's chamber music 50 years ago, I'd have been over the moon. Despite the lack of space in my CD collection, I shall certainly be keeping this volume.
Brian Wilson, Musicweb-international.com