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Quatuor Mosaïques Worth the Wait

Quatuor Mosaïques:
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Haydn op. 20

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Haydn op. 77

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Beethoven op. 18/1,4

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Mozart Quartets
Ionarts has been recommending the recordings of the Haydn quartets by the Quatuor Mosaïques for years, but we had the first chance to review them live on Saturday night in an exceptional concert at the Library of Congress. The group was formed in the 1980s by cellist Christophe Coin and other members of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble Concentus Musicus. Over two decades, their recordings of Classical string quartets, performed on historical instruments with gut strings, have changed the way we hear Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Two Haydn quartets on the first half had all the superlative qualities expected from the group's recordings: rhythmic clarity, impeccable balance among parts, and clean intonation partially due to a sparing use of vibrato. The G minor quartet (op. 20, no. 3) had a crisp first movement, a wistful yearning treatment of the second movement (with a more dance-like trio), Venetian glass-like layering of sound in the third movement, and an active, energetic finale (albeit with a few squeaks here and there in the first violin).

Even more pleasing was the last published of Haydn's complete string quartets, the F major (op. 77, no. 2), in which the clever handling of the formal outlines of each movement was noteworthy, like the transition from development to recapitulation in the first movement. The jokingly clumsy return from the trio to the minuetto, like a sputtering engine trying to get started (in a coda that haltingly gets us back from D-flat major to the home key), played right into the hemiola games of duple versus triple that unsettle the second movement. In general, second violinist Andrea Bischof seemed a little too retiring and could have brought out her occasional solos with more flair, while the perceptive and sonorous playing of cellist Christophe Coin marked him as the group's leader.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Quatuor Mosaïques at the Library of Congress (Washington Post, April 20)

Vivien Schweitzer, Thankful and Soulful on the Road to Recovery (New York Times, April 20)

Alan G. Artner, Satisfying debut for the Mosaïques (Chicago Tribune, April 20)

David Patrick Stearns, Early-music quartet at the Kimmel (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18)
Beethoven's C minor quartet (op. 18, no. 4) was of the same approximate vintage as the later Haydn example, Beethoven's op. 18 set having been commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz at the same time as Haydn's (unfinished) op. 77 set. The comparison of the two quartets side by side highlighted the basic qualities of the young Beethoven's compositional style: the restless character of the first movement's main theme, the hammered tonic and dominant chords (as in the rewrite of the bridge of the first movement), the fugal writing of the second movement, and all of those sforzandi on third beats in the menuetto. Gut-stringed 18th-century instruments cannot produce the same violence of sound as later ones, but there is such a thing as way too much sound in a Beethoven string quartet, and what is gained in the soft end of the spectrum makes the overall range of dynamics still very broad, just more subtle. The nature of the instruments also makes it much less easy for the first violin to dominate the texture, making the triplet accompaniment figure of the third-movement trio more transparent, for example. The Quatuor Mosaïques played with remarkable physical energy in the final movement, cranking up the wattage with each return of the rondo theme and then exploding in the Prestissimo coda.

The feast of HIP ensembles continues at the Library of Congress, with a concert by the Geringas Baryton Trio this Friday (April 24, 8 pm).

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