MOZART: String Quartets, K. 172-173 and K. 575, 'Prussian No. 1' (Eder Quartet/ Veronika Vincze) (Naxos: 8.550545)
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
String Quartets Vol. 6
Quartet No.12 in B Flat Major, K. 172
Quartet No.13 in D Minor, K. 173
Quartet No.21 in D Major, K. 575 (Prussian Quartet No.1)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756, the son of a court musician who, in the year of his youngest child's birth, published an influential book on violin-playing. Leopold Mozart rose to occupy the position of Vice-Kapellmeister to the Archbishop of Salzburg, but sacrificed his own creative career to that of his son, in whom he detected early signs of precocious genius. With the indulgence of his patron, he was able to undertake extended concert tours of Europe in which his son and his elder daughter Nannerl were able to astonish audiences. The boy played both the keyboard and the violin and could improvise and soon write down his own compositions.
Childhood that had brought Mozart signal success was followed by a less satisfactory period of adolescence largely in Salzburg, under the patronage of a new and less sympathetic Archbishop. Like his father, Mozart found opportunities far too limited at home, while chances of travel were now restricted. In 1777, when leave of absence was not granted, he gave up employment in Salzburg to seek a future elsewhere, but neither Mannheim nor Paris, both musical centres of some importance, had anything for him. His Mannheim connections, however, brought a commission for an opera in Munich in 1781, and after its successful staging he was summoned by his patron to Vienna. There Mozart's dissatisfaction with his position resulted in a quarrel with the Archbishop and dismissal from his service.
The last ten years of Mozart's life were spent in Vienna in precarious independence of both patron and immediate paternal advice, a situation aggravated by an imprudent marriage. Initial success in the opera-house and as a performer was followed, as the decade went on, by increasing financial difficulties. By the time of his death in December 1791, however, his fortunes seemed about to change for the better, with the success of the German opera The Magic Flute, and the possibility of increased patronage.
The string quartet developed as a form in the second half of the eighteenth century, coming to assume the greatest importance for composers. Stendhal's account of the matter, in his Lettres sur J. Haydn, is well known. He recalls the description given by a woman of intelligence who found the quartet similar to the conversation of four friends, the first violin, a middle-aged man and a good speaker, leading the discourse, supported by his friend, the second violin, who would seek to allow the first to shine, the viola would be a knowledgeable man of sound opinions, occasionally adding his own laconic but truthful comments, while the cello was a woman who had nothing very important to say, and yet always sought to take part in the conversation, adding an element of gracefulness and sometimes allowing the others time to draw breath. It is true that with the later quartets of Haydn and those of Mozart in which he rivalled the example of the older man, there is an equilibrium between the four instruments, each with its essential contribution to a form that epitomizes the music of the period, a microcosm into which the essence of music is subsumed.
In the autumn of 1772 Mozart travelled with his father to Milan, where an opera had been commissioned for the opening of the carnival season. Leopold Mozart had hoped that his son would be offered a position at the court of the governor of Milan, the Archduke Ferdinand, son of the Empress, but in this he was disappointed. The next opportunity to seek advancement came in the summer. During the absence from Salzburg of the Archbishop, father and son travelled to Vienna, where they remained from mid-July until late September, and here Mozart wrote a further set of six string quartets, works that were in the four movement form familiar to the Viennese, rather than the three-movement Italian form of the six quartets he had written during his time in Italy. Like that set, however, these quartets are in a related sequence of keys and were written in August and September, while he and his father continued to hope for some positive sign of court patronage. The stay had some effect on Mozart's style, particularly in the string quartets, which show the influence of Haydn. Later problems arose when, in 1785, the publisher Torricella issued these six quartets at a lower price than the new set of quartets that Mozart had dedicated to Haydn in that year, published by Artaria. The Quartet in B flat major, K. 172, the fifth of the set, opens with four strong chords in a sonata-form movement with a brief central development section, before the recapitulation of the material. The E flat major slow movement, marked Adagio, offers a first violin melody with a syncopated accompaniment at first from second violin and viola. In the third movement Minuet the viola is answered by the first violin and there is an interesting contrast in the G minor Trio, in very short notes. The final Allegro assai is again in tripartite sonata-form with a short central development.
The last of the set, the Quartet in D minor, K. 173, is the only one in a minor key. There is a first movement, marked Allegro ma molto moderato, and making use of a descending figure in the first subject of a sonata-form structure, used here to considerable dramatic effect. The second movement, marked Andantino grazioso and in D major, has all the air of a courtly dance. It opens with the violins playing in octaves introducing a rondo-form structure. The original key of D minor returns, as it should, for the Minuet, contrasted rhythmically with the triplet figuration of an F major Trio. The interesting last movement has a chromatically descending figure stated by the cello and imitated by viola, second violin and first violin. The material is worked out fugally with use of inversion and, briefly, of augmentation, when the notes of the fugal figure are prolonged.
In April 1789 Mozart was invited to accompany Prince Karl Lichnowsky on a journey to Berlin, which they reached in the middle of May, after visiting Dresden and Leipzig. The expenses of the journey outweighed any financial advantages, although Mozart was received at the Prussian court and spent same time at Potsdam. The musical result of the expedition may be seen in a piano sonata, one of a projected group of six, for Princess Friederike, the eldest daughter of King Friedrich Wilhelm II, and three of a projected set of six string quartets for the King, himself a cellist. Mozart set to work on the quartets and the sonata after his return to Vienna, which he reached on 4th June, the month in which he completed the first of the three Prussian Quartets, K. 575. The second and third were written in May and June respectively, the following summer. The whole period was one of financial anxiety for Mozart, who was obliged to borrow money from a fellow mason, Michael Puchberg, to meet his living expenses. The quartets themselves failed to bring him the reward for which he had hoped and were sold to the publisher Artaria for w hat the composer described despairingly as Spottgeld, a mere song, to be issued at the end of 1791, after his death. The Quartet in D major, K. 575, starts with a theme entrusted to the violin and echoed by the viola, with the cello delaying its entry until the ninth bar, but later playing an important part in the proceedings. Here the individual lines are interwoven with great subtlety, adding a further dimension to the sonata-form structure. The A major Andante has the violins in oct