Mozart / String Quartets / Quartetto Italiano – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

More of the music of Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

String Quartets / Quartetto Italiano

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame

Easily one of the finest string quartet recordings we have ever had the pleasure to play, this Philips pressing earned strong grades on both sides for its lovely recreation of space, Tubey Magical richness, and rosiny string textures.  

It sounds very much like live music, or at least what you imagine this music would sound like live. Of course, live classical music is shocking in its clarity and freedom from artificiality, and no recording I have ever heard duplicates that sound with perfect fidelity, but when the pressing is as clear and transparent and natural as this one, your ability to suspend disbelief seems to require no effort at all.

Close your eyes and your brain, search as it may, can find nothing in the recording to interfere with the appreciation of even the most subtle nuances of the score. This is the mark of a very fine record indeed.

You may notice that we do very few chamber music records on the site. Thousands of these works have been recorded, and to be honest a large portion of them actually have quite decent sound. Obviously a handful of instruments is much more easily captured on tape than the fifty or more pieces in a modern large orchestra.

But when we hear one with this kind of transparency and fidelity, we make every effort to track down more copies, working through them to discover the truly Hot Stamper pressings lurking within their identical looking covers.

This copy had the sound we were looking for. Those of you with exceptionally clean, clear systems, capable of reproducing both the clarity and the Tubey Magic captured on the tape, are in for a real treat.

What to Listen for

Dryness.

Some of the copies lacked the richness to balance out the clarity and became dry sounding. There is a balance to be found. The right VTA will be critical in this regard. When you have all the space; the clearest, most extended harmonics; AND good weight and richness in the lower registers of the cello, you are where you need to be (keeping in mind that it can always get better if you the patience and drive to tweak further).

On the other side of that coin is Smear, usually from too much tubey richness. Again, finding the balance is key.


Quartetto Italiano

The playing of the Quartetto Italiano has a freshness, range and subtlety that vividly realizes the music in all its variety, while technical problems seem to have been solved so that the music making can be both spontaneous-sounding and thoughtful throughout.

Mozart’s String Quartets

This series of performances dates from between 1966 (when the six quartets Nos. 14-19 dedicated to Haydn were recorded) to 1973 and was rightly saluted on its completion as a fine achievement. The playing of the Quartetto Italiano has a freshness, range and subtlety that vividly realizes the music in all its variety, while technical problems seem to have been solved so that the music making can be both spontaneous-sounding and thoughtful throughout.

As the son of a violinist and violin teacher, Mozart was himself a fine player of the violin and viola. Yet even so one is surprised by the assurance of his First Quartet, the G major, K80 (1770). 1 must confess that it was new to me and that I had expected a work showing clear immaturity: but I was wrong. This quartet opens with quite a songful and extended Adagio, twice the length of any of the following movements; these are an Allegro, Minuet and Rondo, and only in the last did Idetect a hint of student-like manufactured passagework as opposed to a real flow of ideas. Oddly enough, this finale was a later addition, as the accompanying booklet reminds us: it is a little dismissive of the work, finding it dominated by the first violin, but this does not especially strike me.

The Quartetto Italiano give the listener much to enjoy (and Mozart much to marvel at) in the 13 quartets up to K173, written over four teenage years. One could differ with this or that detail— for example the opening Presto of K156 is a bit leisurely and its E minor Adagio perhaps invested with a profundity more suited to the later quartets, while the Andante un poco allegretto of K158 could flow more—but it is more sensible to enjoy these performances on their own terms, which remain consistently within good Mozart style.

The players have still greater interpretative challenges and opportunities in the quartets of the ‘second period’, by which I mean the ten quartets of 1782-90. These followed a gap of nine years (1773-82) which roughly parallels a similar hiatus in Haydn’s quartet series between his Opp.20 and 33; and as is widely known, Mozart’s own six quartets from K387 to K465 were dedicated to the older composer and described by their creator as “the fruit of long and arduous work”. Here, certainly, the individuality of the four instruments is fully realized, while the interplay of motif and melody between them is of a compositional order that makes the dull word ‘counterpoint’ seem inadequate and inappropriate. Sonata form still serves for the opening movements, but its most remarkable feature is its flexibility; similarly the fugal style of the finale of the G major Quartet that opens the series has sonata elements. Harmonically the language is daring too: one thinks of the stark modulations following the florid writing in the Andante cantabile of this quartet, of the tense chromaticism of K421 in D minor and, of course, of the famous Adagio introduction to the finale of the Dissonance Quartet in which the tonic chord is not heard till bar 14, and then only for half crotchet beat.

There is no doubt that the chief musical glories of this release, in music and playing alike, lie in this celebrated “Haydn” set together with the D major, K499 and the three “Prussian” Quartets K575, K589 and K590. But a longer discussion is impracticable here: suffice it to say that they are admirable (despite an occasional slowish tempo) and that the recording is fresh and faithful.

— Gramophone [8/1987]

Quartetto Italiano

The Quartetto Italiano is regarded as one of the finest string quartets of the twentieth century. The ensemble’s repertory was broad and included the entire quartet outputs of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Webern, and selected works of Galuppi, Vivaldi, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos, Schoenberg and many others. They were formed officially in 1945 and by the early 1950s they had achieved a measure of international celebrity, but by the 1960s the ensemble had developed a worldclass reputation. Between 1967 and 1975 they recorded all the Beethoven string quartets for Philips as well as the complete quartets by Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Webern. They rarely collaborated with other soloists, but did so notably on Brahms’s Piano Quintet op.34 with Maurizio Pollini in 1974.

The Quartetto Italiano recorded all the Mozart Quartets. The Penguin Guide said ‘As a set, the performances have seen off all challengers for two decades or more.’