Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Adagio & Fugue in C minor, K.546; Variations in G minor, K.360/374b

Listening Diary 2014-04-05


2014-04-05 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-11 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-19 — Brushed up for better readability


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791): Adagio & Fugue in C minor, K.546

Hagen Quartett

Mozart: The String Quartets, Hagen Quartett, CD cover

Mozart: The String Quartets (Divertimenti K.136 – 138; String Quartets 1 – 23; Eine kleine Nachtmusik; 5 four-part Fugues, K.405; Adagio & Fugue K.546)

Hagen Quartett

DG 00289 477 6253 (7 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1994 – 2006

Mozart: The String Quartets, Hagen Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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Chiaroscuro Quartet

Beethoven: String quartet op.95; Mozart: String quartets K.428 & 546, Chiaroscuro Quartet, CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartet in F minor, op.95
Mozart: Adagio & Fugue in C minor, K.546; String Quartet in E♭, K.428

Chiaroscuro Quartet

Aparté APO51 (stereo, CD); ℗ / © 2013

Beethoven: String quartet op.95; Mozart: String quartets K.428 & 546, Chiaroscuro Quartet, EAN-13 barcode
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The Composition

Mozart has studied baroque compositions and was familiar with the musical forms of that time (e.g., he arranged five fugues from Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Book II, for strings / string quartet). But he did not compose that many fugues himself. The Adagio & Fugue in C minor, K.546, is one of the exceptions (the fugue is arranged from an earlier version for two pianos, K.426).

The publication history of these two compositions is somewhat odd, in that Mozart put “a 2 violini, viola, e Basso” into the title, which in early published versions translated to “per 2 violini, viola, e violoncello” (Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Wien, 1788),  “per 2 Violini, Alto, e Violoncello” (Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Wien, 1801), or “per due Violini, Viola, et Basso” (Artaria & Co. Wien, 1808). The last one is closest to Mozart, but leaves it open what “Basso” means. Apparently, Mozart explicitly mentioned the inclusion of a double bass at the end of the composition. However, the publication history mostly ignores this.

The Recordings

I currently have two recordings of K.546:

  • one by the Hagen Quartett who included this as part of their integral recording of all of Mozart’s string quartets from 2000, with the addition of a double bass, played by Roberto di Ronza.
  • one by the Chiaroscuro Quartet, recorded in 2012, together with the string quartet in E♭, K.428, and with Beethoven’s string quartet in F minor, op.95; this ensemble plays K.546 without double bass.

The Interpretations

Both these CDs were already referred to in my posting “Mozart: String Quartet in E♭, K.428“. See there for details on these ensembles and for general remarks. Neither of these interpretations can be called “traditional”:

Hagen Quartett

As mentioned, the Hagen Quartett has added a double bass. This is likely closer to the composer’s intent, but it makes this music much more of a technical challenge, especially if a fast tempo is chosen.

Interpretation

In general, one may occasionally recognize limitations in the purity of the intonation, as the cello and the double bass (playing in parallel octaves) can’t always be perfectly in tune. Also, their playing in these movements is rather aggressive. In the Adagio, the f parts are played ff and overpunctuated. Also, the semiquavers are almost like demisemiquavers. Moreover, the f parts are played at 1/4 = 62, but the p parts are slower, with 1/4 = 44 — for no good reason.

They use very limited vibrato (compared to “traditional” interpretations), Their playing is technically flawless (with the limitations that I mention above), apart from a certain roughness in the f(f) parts. The fugue appears at approx. 1/4 = 142. Especially for the double bass this is somewhat of a challenge. Also, the articulation in some of the semiquavers is rather superficial. Otherwise their playing is very virtuosic. The only dynamic annotation in the fugue is f at the very beginning of every voice. Here, it all sounds aggressive, rough and ff.

Rating: 3.5 (4 / 3) — durations: 3’20” + 3’28”

Chiaroscuro Quartet

In their historically informed playing, the Chiaroscuro Quartet is far more radical. They use gut strings, baroque (rather than French) bows, and their instruments are tuned to approx. a’ = 425 Hz. They play with virtually no perceptible vibrato. That latter point makes pure intonation much more of a challenge, but the artists (led by Alina Ibragimova on the first violin) master this very well, if not almost perfectly! It may take some time to get used to the sound, the lower tuning and the absence of vibrato. However, I’m sure this is close to what Mozart and his audience might have heard in their time.

Interpretation

In the Adagio, the Chiaroscuro Quartet plays f, not fortissimo, and their p really is piano. They take it back, and all with very accurate articulation, also in the punctuation. Compared to the Hagen Quartett, this may sound rhythmically soft initially, but I can’t see this as deviating from the notation. And unlike the Hagen Quartett, they don’t introduce extraneous tempo changes. The entire movement is at approx. 1/4 = 54.

The only minor point of possible criticism in my view is an occasional, slight tendency to use “belly notes” (“swollen notes”). In the fugue, they play substantially slower than the Hagen Quartett, with approx. 1/4 = 112. I would characterize their interpretation as (much) less focused on virtuosity, but rather trying to be transparent. One can call it an analytical interpretation, in the sense that the listener can follow the theme of the fugue, its comes and the inversion of the theme throughout this art- and masterful composition.

I stated that the Hagen Quartett sounds rough in the fugue. There is some roughness here, too, but only in that they don’t try smoothing out the sound of the gut strings.

Rating: 4.5 (5 / 4) — durations: 3’00” + 4’24”

Conclusion

My clear favorite here is the Chiaroscuro Quartet


Mozart: 6 Variations for Piano & Violin
on “Au bord d’une fontaine” in G minor, K.360/374b

David Oistrakh, Paul Badura-Skoda

Mozart: Violin sonatas & variations, Oistrakh/Badura-Skoda, CD/DVD cover

Mozart: Violin sonatas (CD: Sonatas K.306, 454, 481, Variations K.360/374b; DVD: Sonatas K.454, 481, Variations K.360/374b)

David Oistrakh, Paul Badura-Skoda

naïve andante, AN2200 (CDs, stereo; DVD PAL + NTSC); ℗ 1972 / © 2005

Mozart: Violin sonatas & variations, Oistrakh/Badura-Skoda, UPC-A barcode
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Petra Müllejans, Kristian Bezuidenhout

Mozart: Sonatas for fortepiano & violin, Müllejans/Bezuidenhout, CD cover

Mozart: Sonatas for fortepiano and violin (Sonatas K.296, 379/373a, 454, Variations K.360/374b)

Petra Müllejans, Kristian Bezuidenhout

harmonia mundi usa, HMU 907494 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2009

Mozart: Sonatas for fortepiano & violin, Müllejans/Bezuidenhout, UPC-A barcode
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As a introductory part to a discussion of several recordings of Mozart violin sonatas (in upcoming blog posts) I quickly want to cover two interpretations of the 6 Variations for Piano & Violin on “Au bord d’une fontaine” in G minor, K.360/374b. This is a short set of variations on a (then) popular theme, with the alternative text / wording “Hélas, j’ai perdu mon amant” (Alas, I have lost my lover!).

The Interpretations

The two interpretations in the recordings above could barely be more different:

David Oistrakh / Paul Badura-Skoda

The recording with David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974) and Paul Badura-Skoda (*1927) is a result of the festival “Carinthischer Sommer” in the Stiftskirche Ossiach, on 1972-08-30. The enclosed DVD features a video recording of the same composition. The video was taken the same month (August 1972) at Schloss Klesheim, near Salzburg. Oistrakh plays a Stradivarius from 1705, Paul Badura-Skoda is playing on a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand.

Interpretation

Oistrakh / Badura-Skoda play the theme (Andantino, 6/8) at 3/8 = 50. Here, it’s a melancholic piece, in the end maybe moody, clearly referring to the main title “Au bord d’une fontaine”. Oistrakh’s playing is unobtrusive (or is this the sound management?), with his harmonious, fairly natural vibrato, pretty much throughout. It is definitely bearable, especially if one is familiar with the conventional violin sound. People like myself who are “into” historically informed playing may find this no longer acceptable. The artists strictly stick to the score, i.e, there are no extra ornaments or cadenzas. In the DVD recording, the performance includes all repeats in variations I – VI (1:1, no extra ornaments). Strangely, in the concert recording, there are no repeats: maybe they found the piece potentially uninteresting with all the repeats?

Summary / Rating

Overall, it’s technically flawless. A good conventional interpretation, no more, no less.

Rating: 3 — duration: 5’04” (DVD: 9’22”)

Petra Müllejans / Kristian Bezuidenhout

Petra Müllejans (*1959) and Kristian Bezuidenhout (*1979) made this recording in June 2008. This is the complete opposite: Petra Müllejans plays a violin by Joseph Clotz (Mittenwald, ca. 1700), with gut strings. The artist presumably uses a baroque bow. Vibrato is used very rarely. Kristian Bezuidenhout plays a fortepiano by Derek Adlam, Welbeck, 1987, after an instrument by Anton Walter, Vienna, ca. 1795, tuned at a’ = 430 (temperament: Thomas Young).

About the artists: Petra Müllejans has been instrumental in building the Freiburger Barockorchester and is now directing that ensemble, Kristian Bezuidenhout is one of the leading fortepianists of the current time (I’ll be reporting on more recordings with this artists).

Interpretation

What is different in K.360 with these artists? Primarily, of course, it’s the sound. Compared to traditional recordings, using a Walter fortepiano and a violin with gut strings completely alters the sound and the sound balance. On top of that (as far as I can tell), the pianist plays the entire piece with the moderator enabled, which dampens the sound and reduces the higher harmonics. It also makes the bright sound of the gut strings stand out more. The use of the moderator fits the different character of the piece: here, the tempo is substantially slower, at around 3/8 = 40 in the theme. This feels like the lower limit for an Andantino, being almost Adagio. Obviously, these artists based their interpretation on the alternative song text “Alas, I have lost my lover!”, which turns out the sad, mourning character of the theme and its first variations.

The mood brightens up in the Maggiore variation (V), indicating consolation (very nice, tender, singing, almost whispering / ppp); the final variation (VI) is showing signs of recovery, is in forward-looking spirit. Even with the moderator turned on (a piece of felt or tissue pulled between the hammers and the strings), I very much like the rich sound of the fortepiano, showing so much more color than a modern concert grand. This clearly is the richer interpretation emotionally. It includes all repeats, even in the theme, where some editions lack repeat signs. The repeats feature very well-placed and well-adapted additional ornaments that are never uniform / schematic. They sound improvised, clearly in the spirit of the time, and definitely a vast enhancement to the listening experience. It is unthinkable that Mozart would have done 1:1 repeats — ever!

Summary / Rating

Clearly, an excellent interpretation, superseding any traditional interpretation!

Rating: 5 — duration: 12’17”

Conclusion

After having heard Müllejans / Bezuidenhout with these variations, I would barely like to go back to Oistrakh / Badura-Skoda for the same music!


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