String quartets don’t come much more ‘period’ than the Quatuor Mosaïques, even if their ideas of historical authenticity are more flexible than the ensemble which brought them together (Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien). The Mosaïques play on period instruments with gut strings, and there is a sinewy lightness to their sound that seems no less radically distinctive than when they started making recordings of their Viennese core repertoire twenty years ago.
But you can have too much of a good thing – and that was the case in the Schumann, which was played ably (and with excellent spiccato) but lacked sonority and bass. The cello introduces an important theme in the trio and brings the finale to a head by setting off a sequence of pianistic runs which require agility, presence and the contrast of this instrument’s darker tone. Cellist Christophe Coin was nimble enough but seemed rather retiring and didn’t bring much earthiness to the sound. The rhetoric and drama of the registral contrasts in the coda – Schumann has the first violin and cello reach for new peaks and lows – was carried by the Mosaïques’ leader, Erich Höbarth, but could have been a more forceful closing statement, had similar efforts been made across the ensemble.
The Mozart was played cleanly and accurately but also seemed to be missing a certain something. The Mosaïques produced a wispy sound with long, tilted bows drawn rapidly across the string, and phrasing, though graceful, sounded glossed over. In places there was more warmth than in the Schumann, but the touches of light vibrato were few and could have been applied at more effective moments. Attack was weak and rubato rarely persuasive, particularly in the first movement.
What was lacking beyond capable playing in the Mozart and the Schumann was however in abundance in the Haydn. The Mosaïques made their reputation with Haydn’s quartet output, and this performance of the ‘Fifths’ Quartet – so named for the perfect fifths which open the first movement – pushed the limits even further than in their acclaimed recording. It’s the treatment this repertory warhorse needs and an appropriate response to Haydn, who pushed himself – and the fifth – in ways that can still seem radical. The Mosaïques’ fifths were intense and dramatic but didn’t overwhelm the first movement, and the place of the second subject material seemed accounted for within Haydn’s scheme rather than simply ploughed into, as is often the temptation. Though at odds with editions of the score I am familiar with, dynamics and attack worked compellingly, particularly in the offbeat chords which separate the two halves of the second subject area. The canon of the minuet should also be singled out for drawing attention to the strangeness of the writing – parallel octaves in the violins shadow parallel octaves in the viola and cello – while crafting a vivid line of it. If, since their 2000 release, the Mosaïques have interrogated and rethought the other Op. 76 quartets with similar boldness, they should consider re-recording the set.
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