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  Praga Digitals -
  PRD/DSD 250 242
  Mozart: "Haydn" Quartets (I) - Prazak Quartet
  Mozart: String Quartet No. 15 in D minor K.421, String Quartet No. 17 in B flat major K.458 "The Hunt", String Quartet No. 19 in C K.465 "Dissonant"

Prazak Quartet
Track listing:
  Classical - Chamber
Recording type:
Recording info:

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Related titles: 1

Reviews: 2

Review by Beagle January 4, 2008 (9 of 11 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Who is that handsome young fellow on the cover? Before my copy arrived, I had been thinking it was a portrait of young Beethoven which I had never encountered before; it has his looks. I now understand that this is a self-portrait of Louis David (1748-1825), a french painter who was curiously both a friend of Robespierre and appointee of Napoleon: a real survivor. David appears to have nothing to do with Mozart or Haydn either. My guess is that he was put on the cover for his looks, which are certainly more attractive than that knobby-headed, pop-eyed runt named Joannes Chrystostomos Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. I mention this because this cosmetic choice of cover art parallels a musical choice on this disc: niceness before honesty.

The most famous 22 bars in the history of music take about a minute and a half to sound, but they have remained an intriguing musical mystery for 222 years*. I refer to the opening of the Dissonanzen-kvartet (KV465). At the beginning of this final quartet in the set dedicated to Haydn, -- and just before settling into a jolly but forgetable ditty -- Mozart does something so outrageous that buyers returned their copies to the publisher as ‘defective’. But it isn’t a typo; Haydn praised them and said of the puzzling incipit “Well, if Mozart wrote it, he must have meant it.”. Like a terrified heartbeat, the cello pulses on the tonic note of C , then the viola enters on A flat, then second violin on E flat. This could build into a C minor, but it doesn’t. The viola ducks down to G just before first violin enters on high A natural – narrowly missing a fatal clash with the viola’s A flat /showthread/26081. This repeats several times with the series descending from C to A flat to E flat.

This is not the only dangerous liaison with dissonance in the Haydn Quartets. The second in the set (KV421) wrings the illusion of dissonance out of octaves, and the third (KV428) contains an uncanny pre-echo of the yearning ‘Liebestod’ Wagner would write some 80 years later. But for sheer audacity, the Dissonanzen-kvartett takes the prize. From our privileged position in time, the 22 measures sound like a time-warp into Late Beethoven (or is it a Bernard Herrmann score for a Hitchcock film?). Is this merely that crazy guy Mozart ‘cocking a snook’ at polite society? Is it a tour-de-force to show Old Joe what The Kid could do, if he wanted to? My favourite writer on such matters, Paul Griffiths, has an interesting suggestion. These were the glory days of the string quartet and even contrapuntalist Albrechtsberger was going to press with ‘fugal’ quartets. With such competition in mind, the puzzling 22 bars can be heard as an old-fashion strict-counterpoint canon, segueing into the new free-counterpoint: The Salzburg Kid is saying for Albrechtberger’s benefit “You’re not the only one who’s been studying Bach!”. And who was Beethoven’s counterpoint teacher? Albrechtsberger. And to what did Beethoven turn in his last years? Grosse Fuge für Streichquartett.

The stark sequence of notes which begins KV465 opens a spectrum of musical choices: Should the tempo be urgent, metronomic or cautious? Is the cello pulse a prominent feature or merely subtle background? Are the four parts to be distinguished as individual voices or blended into a collective chord? All of these questions fuse together into a single choice. Andrew McGregor (Stereophile, May 2006) puts it nicely: “do you exercise classical restraint and let Mozart's chromatic writing speak for itself, or do you wring every last expressive drop from this extraordinary opening?”.

Despite Haydn’s endorsement, ensembles seem to find the unhaydnesque 22 bars to be embarrassing. The 1994 Penguin Guide praised the Talich performance on Calliope, but not without the reservation that “Perhaps the Dissonance could have a stonger profile…”. Further down the same page Penguin notes with pleasure that “The Dissonance opens with the Eder group creating considerable atmosphere…” on the 1991 Naxos recording which remains my favourite performance of this intriguing work.

I have lamented that the Quartetto Classico do not embrace the dissonance, at least not as whole-heartedly as the Eder Quartet. Now I must sadly report that the Prazak Quartet has a bad case of ‘dissonance denial’. Both hurry through the opening* but at least the Classico version has a strong cello pulse – the Prazaks smother that beating heart almost to inaudibility. Quartetto Classico might be less known than the Prazaks to SACD collectors, but that does not mean that they are lesser musicians; on the contrary, the Prazak disc has convinced me of the superior musicianship of the Quartetto Classico Mozart: The "Haydn" String Quartets - Quartetto Classico.

Except for the above complaint, I have no great problem with the playing here (the KV458 is a jolly-good ‘Hunt’); it is competent on a high level and yet not ideal. I am not as impressed as D. Philippe on who says “Prazák deliver all that one could desire from these quartets: vivacity, animation, a "cantabile" quality and above all, spontaneity. Thanks to those qualities, all the harmonic audacities … take a singular relief… the singularity of each bow is extraordinary.” [my translation]. I suspect that Philippe has confounded high fidelity with expressiveness. Nonetheless he demonstrates that my lack of enthusiasm is not universal.

And speaking of high fidelity, the cellist-wife says “I prefer the more open sound of the Prazak, but I like the playing of the Classico better.” The Prazak's microphones seem close to or on stage, producing a wider more spatially precise soundstage; the Classico sounds as if miked back several rows into audience, producing a narrower soundstage where instruments blend into more chordal sound. Yes, the Praga sound is more precise, but as in their Beethoven Op. 18, the Prazaks bother me with an aggressive brilliance which is partly microphone placement, partly musicians’ attitude.
*Mozart completed the ‘Jagd-kvartett’ on January 10 and the ‘Dissonanzen-kvartet’ on January 14, 1785 (but they didn't acquire those nicknames until later). He had been working on the set of six Haydn-kvartetten for about three years and called it “fruit of a long and laborious work” (the autograph is uncharacteristically marred with deletions and re-writes). Quartets were of minor interest to Mozart until he heard Haydn’s Op. 33. These six quartets dedicated to Haydn are at the same time Mozart's first serious effort in the genre and the culmination its mastery: they are his ‘Late Quartets’. Mozart (va) played at least some of the quartets with Haydn (vn2) before their publication -- after which Haydn famously told Papa Leopold “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name.”.

**As measured by stop-watch
Eder: 1:45
Prazak: 1:24
Classico: 1:22

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Review by JJ February 7, 2008 (6 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
When Mozart returned to writing quartets nine years after his “Viennese quartets”, it was these absolute masterpieces he offered, inspired by his old friend Joseph Haydn. “For nine years”, Bernard Fournier tell us, “he was able to develop his own style and affirm his esthetic personality through other musical genres, and in chamber music with for example the Quartet for Oboe K. 370 as well as the four superb Sonatas for Violin and Piano composed after his definitive departure from Salzbourg. What’s more, he had just recently had the major artistic experience of studying the music of Jean-Sebastien Bach. Conditions in fact were ripe for him to once again try writing in the dreaded genre. “ The present recording proposes three of the six quartets dedicated to Haydn: the String Quartet No. 15 in D minor KV. 421 dating from 1783, the String Quartet No. 17 in B flat major KV. 458 “The Hunt” from 1784, and the String Quartet No. 19 in C major KV. 465 “The Dissonances” from 1785. As Mozart himself, the Prazak Quartet once again is here at its best. Their playing breathes unforced, their approach is the most subtle. Perfectly phrased, ideally accented, naturally balanced, all here conspires into a marvelous musicality in a recording that is tops too. Needless to say, this must-have SACD, over eighty minutes long, should be the cornerstone of anyone’s collection. We await volume 2 impatiently.

Jean-Jacques Millo
Translation Lawrence Schulman

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Works: 3  

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421/417b
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - String Quartet No. 17 in B flat major, K. 458 "The Hunt"
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465 "Dissonant"