Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
String Quartet No.16 in E♭ major, K.428

Media Review / Comparison

2013-03-06 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-07-05 — New standard layout
2014-03-27 — Chiaroscuro Quartet added, some updates / adjustments
2014-11-11 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-19 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents

Introduction / The Recordings

In connection with my reviews on the recordings of Beethoven’s String Quartets in my music collection, I downloaded a recording by the Hagen Quartet which also included Mozart’s string quartet in E♭ major, K.428, so I did a quick comparison of that interpretation with the three that already existed in my collection. The latest addition is that of the Chiaroscuro Quartet from 2012.

Here’s a short list of the recordings that I compared, in alphabetic order:

The Composition

The String Quartet No.16 in E♭ major, K.428 (421b) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) features the following movements:

I. Allegro non troppo (2/4)

This movement starts with an octave, followed by a diminished fifth (tritonus), all in unison — clearly, Mozart wanted to shock the listeners! The effect of these intervals is most pronounced if played without any vibrato — truly a “Dissonanzenquartett”, though in melody rather than chords. To me, this is just about as revolutionary as the opening to Wagner’s Vorspiel to “Tristan und Isolde” — though here, it wasn’t meant to spark a revolution, but merely to upset the audience (and this episode re-occurs several times in this movement). One could probably see this as argument supporting the speculation that Mozart had some degree of a Tourrette syndrome (even more so in the last movement!).

Mozart: String quartet K.428, mvt.1, score sample

II. Andante con moto (6/8)

This should really be played as 6/8, i.e., counting in 3/8 units rather than “sitting down” on every eighth note, which would destroy the effect of the shifted rhythms and the syncopes. It is certainly the most conventional one of the movements —but that doesn’t necessarily make it a harmless, innocent slow piece.

Mozart: String quartet K.428, mvt.2, score sample

III. Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

One could see this as a harmless, dance-like Rococo piece — but given the surprises in the outer movements (considering an audience at the time of this composition), this can’t be the whole story: after all, the annotation is Allegro, so it is more than a simple minuet. I rather think that the approach of the Hagen Quartett is correct / more appropriate: aren’t these initial figures typical “Tourrette’s hiccups”?? Even if Mozart did not have Tourrette’s syndrome (that’s purely speculation), it is clearly written with the intent to gain attention, if not to upset the audience!

Mozart: String quartet K.428, mvt.3, score sample, Menuetto: Allegro
Mozart: String quartet K.428, mvt.3, score sample, Trio

IV. Allegro vivace (2/4)

One can play this “the traditional way”, making it a “fun Rococo piece” — but I think there’s much more in it, starting with this hesitant beginning with all the breaks, then suddenly a very fast, virtuoso passage for the first violin, and we are already at the first repeat sign. It’s all very fragmented, with strange, syncopated rhythms; there are traditional cadences, immediately followed by very old harmonies; it’s a sonata movement, but really, the evolution part is rather weird, and also the recapitulation is interrupted by strange harmonies; the Coda repeats the hesitant beginning — and suddenly changes into a harmless, innocent ending, saying “don’t worry, it was all just a joke!”.

Mozart: String quartet K.428, mvt.4, score sample

Comparison Table (Rating, Metronome Values)

As one of the few things that one can actually “measure” in music performances, I’m giving the approximate metronome numbers for each of the movements in the text below. As these numbers are spread over the text, I felt it would help if I collected them in a table, shown below. I have used color coding to indicate relative rates: white would be the average tempo, blue fields are slower tempi, green indicates faster-than-average performances (where the strength of the color indicates the amount of deviation from the average). Some ensembles prefer slower tempi, others are faster throughout, some are “mixed bags” (click on table for full size view):

Mozart: String quartet K.428, rating/M.M. comparison table

Comments on the Individual Recordings

The order of the interpretations below follows my subjective rating, my preferred recording shown last:

Alban Berg Quartett (1990)

Mozart: Chamber Music (10 string quartets, 2 string quintets, etc.), Alban Berg Quartett, CD cover

Mozart: Chamber Music (String Quartets K.387, 421, 428, 458, 464, 465, 499, 575, 589, 590; String Quintets K.515, 516; Piano Quartet K.493; Piano Concerto K.414, arr. for piano & string quartet)

Alban Berg Quartett, Markus Wolf, Alfred Brendel

EMI 7243 5 85581 2 8 (7 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1991 / © 2003

Mozart: Chamber Music (10 string quartets, 2 string quintets, etc.), Alban Berg Quartett, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1990, with Günther Pichler, Gerhard Schulz, Thomas Kakuska, Valentin Erben: this is part of a CD box (7 CDs) featuring 10 string quartets, two string quintets (with Markus Wolf, viola), the piano quartet K.493 (with Alfred Brendel), and the piano concert K.414, arranged for piano and string quartet (again with Alfred Brendel). For general comments on this ensemble see my blog entry on the Beethoven string quartet op.127.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro non troppo (2/4)

7’26”; 1/2 = 64
The strong vibrato already in the unison introduction blurs / destroys the effect of the tritonus, making the introductory “melody” far less impressive, lacking that “hollow sound” found in other interpretations. Their playing otherwise is fairly handsome, straight — unfortunately with that “vibrato sauce” spreading everywhere.

II. Andante con moto (6/8)

7’30”; 3/8 = 37
Positive: a good tempo: really Andante con moto in 6/8, i.e., counting in 3/8 units. On the other hand, the interpretation uses plenty of vibrato, is coarse, never subtle, and tends towards bulge notes.

III. Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

5’59”; 1/4 = 154 (Menuetto: Allegro) — 1/4 = 144 (Trio)
Formally, this is certainly Tempo di minuetto, though the annotation clearly says Allegro, so I think this should be less heavy, more like a Scherzo — and I do miss the scherzoso aspect here: the only “little joke” in this interpretation is maybe in the “slurry” execution of the demisemiquavers in bars 13 and 15 in the first violin; apart from that, this rather sounds like a melancholic movement, rhythmically rather coarse, and in the Trio section, the vibrato makes the intonation sound inaccurate.

IV. Allegro vivace (2/4)

5’38”; 1/4 = 136
Traditional, accurate in articulation and coordination, virtuosic — they make this sound like a fun piece, but I think the joking (if not shocking) aspect should be much stronger here.

Recommendation:Rather traditional, can’t compete with newer interpretations.
Rating:2.25 (2 / 2 / 2 / 3)

Quartetto Italiano (1966)

Mozart: The String Quartets, Quartetto Italiano, CD cover

Mozart: String Quartets (1 – 23)

Quartetto Italiano

Philips 426 886-2 (8 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1967 – 86 / © 1991

Mozart: The String Quartets, Quartetto Italiano, UPC-A barcode
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Recorded in 1966, with Paolo Borciani, Elisa Pegreffi, Piero Farulli, Franco Rossi

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro non troppo (2/4)

7’24”; 1/2 = 64
Limited vibrato (especially in the introduction); a good, rounded, harmonic (though handsome, traditional) interpretation.

II. Andante con moto (6/8)

9’09”; 3/8 = 29
Slow, played in 1/8 rather than 3/8; heavy, does not feel like an Andante; the sforzati (sf) are rather soft (not percussive) and remain at p level, and there’s a certain tendency towards overblown articulation.

III. Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

6’25”; 1/4 = 136 (Menuetto: Allegro) — 1/4 = 136 (Trio)
With a warm tone, but rather heavy, too tamed, too much of a harmless Rococo piece, even though nicely played (much more carefully than the Alban Berg Quartett).

IV. Allegro vivace (2/4)

5’36”; 1/4 = 144
Faster than the Alban Berg Quartett, virtuosic, but sometimes pushing for speed, and with superficial articulation — feels “too fast” (this is not a Presto, after all!).

Recommendation:Traditional, harmonic, definitely not light, often too “tamed”.
Rating:2.75 (3 / 2 / 3 / 3)

Hagen Quartett (2001)

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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Recorded in 2001, with Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro non troppo (2/4)

7’33”; 1/2 = 64
I like their limited vibrato! Compared to their most recent recording (see below), this is slightly faster, maybe more focused on the emotional aspects — an excellent interpretation.

II. Andante con moto (6/8)

9’04”; 3/8 = 29
Expressive, but never overblown. In my initial review I stated “with selective use of vibrato” — considering the interpretation by the Chiaroscuro Quartet I would now rather call this “selective non-vibrato“. They use roughly the same slow tempo as the Quartetto Italiano — one can just about feel this as 6/8, i.e., 2 times 3/8 per bar.

III. Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

5’11”; 1/4 = 176 (Menuetto: Allegro) — 1/4 = 136 (Trio)
Vibrant, electrifying, lively, dramatic — excellent! Perhaps occasionally with a slight tendency to rush / push the tempo.

IV. Allegro vivace (2/4)

5’47”; 1/4 = 144
Very virtuosic, excellent coordination and clarity, with distinct agogics — very good, but overall still relatively close to conventional interpretations in the overall attitude. On those ff peak notes in the first violin, the vibrato is rather strong, affecting the intonation.

Recommendation:Yes — if you are looking for a complete Mozart quartet recording, this looks like a very good choice!
Rating:3.75 (4 / 3 / 4 / 4)

Hagen Quartett (2010)

Beethoven/Mozart/Webern, string quartets, Hagen Quartett (2010), CD cover

Beethoven: String Quartet op. 59/2
Mozart: String Quartet K.428
Webern: 5 Stücke op.5, Bagatellen op.9

Hagen Quartett

Myrios classics & Deutschlandradio (SACD / iTunes download, stereo 256 kbps); ℗ 2010

Beethoven/Mozart/Webern, string quartets, Hagen Quartett (2010), EAN-13 barcode
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Recorded in 2010, with Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt, Veronika Hagen, Clemens Hagen. This is part of a recording that the ensemble made on the occasion of its 30th anniversary: they recorded the same quartet 9 years before — but this is not only a very different interpretation (better, in my opinion), but also features substantially improved sound technique with more clarity and transparency.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro non troppo (2/4)

8’17”; 1/2 = 60
I like these pale, flat notes at the beginning, exposing, clearly emphasizing the odd intervals (later, they add sharpness to the tritonus, making it impossible to ignore that interval); over long stretches they use no vibrato (and where they do, it’s for enhancement of key fragments, melodies). They use an enormous dynamic span, more agogics than 9 years earlier, more precision (and the sound of the recording is definitely clearer here). I also like how they use general rests to build tension emphasize phrases, etc. (in the last movement they raise this to new levels!). Compared to the Chiaroscuro Quartet, they use more (and larger scale) agogics, definitely more vibrato, and the sound is often more aggressive overall.

II. Andante con moto (6/8)

6’04”; 3/8 = 33
More radical than their earlier recording, and substantially faster — the mood is different, less “cosy” than 9 years earlier, more adapted to the spirit of the other movements. Unfortunately, they don’t play the repetition of the first part (probably in order to accommodate the Alban Berg pieces on this anniversary recording) — but on a CD that’s not that much of an issue, as listeners can jump back at the repeat sign at their discretion. It’s also unfortunate that they resorted to using substantial vibrato in this movement — the Chiaroscuro Quartet shows that this is not necessary! This slow movement is entirely different in character from the one of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, not only exaggerating the vibrato (in their range, that is), but also playing the sforzati really strong, almost harsh, and rather disruptive.

III. Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

5’28”; 1/4 = 184 (Menuetto: Allegro) — 1/4 = 132 (Trio)
Joking taken to the extreme — excellent! Fast, light, playful, virtuosic; in bars 13 and 15 (and equivalent passages), the demisemiquavers are played as slurs / short glissandi — with a twinkling eye, of course! In the Trio, the mood is altered completely, making this sound pale, rather skewed, almost weird.

IV. Allegro vivace (2/4)

6’14”; 1/4 = 144
I love this interpretation, and I had real fun with it! Here, the Hagens took a fresh approach, without any restraints, ignoring conventions, taking the joking aspect to unprecedented levels: already at the beginning, they lengthen the breaks in the first bars, making sure they catch the listener’s attention (“what’s going on? Did they forget to count?”) — that’s close to a miracle in coordination! They use limited vibrato, the clarity and the transparency are excellent — virtuosic, sharp, and matching the oddity of the beginning of the first movement — what more can I say? A masterful composition, and a masterful interpretation: when I compare this to their 2001 interpretation, I can see why they selected this composition for their anniversary recording!

Recommendation:Yes, most definitely! Even if you already have their complete Mozart recording, this is still very much worth having! Compared to the Chiaroscuro Quartet, though, one may suspect that they stressed extremes mainly or also just to be different? I also prefer the Chiaroscuro’s treatment of vibrato.
Rating:4.75 (5 / 4 / 5 / 5)

Chiaroscuro Quartet (2012)

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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Recorded in 2012, with Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí, Emilie Hörnlund, Claire Thirion; for general information on this ensemble, its instruments and interpretation style see my posting “Beethoven: String Quartet op.95”. Just a reminder from that posting: in direct comparisons you will notice that the instruments are tuned at a’ = 425 Hz (estimated — it’s definitely not as low as a’ = 415 Hz, as in Baroque intonation), and the lower pitch may initially create the impression of “wrong intonation” — I typically listen to their playing for 5 minutes, then start over again, in order really to appreciate their interpretation!

Before I had this recording, I felt that the Hagen Quartett uses very little vibrato — indeed, they do use less vibrato than traditional ensembles, but the Chiaroscuro Quartet opens new dimensions in that area: over long stretches, they play no perceivable vibrato at all, only on very few notes individual players actually do vibrate, see below. On the other hand, they have not fallen into the habit of frequently using portamento — this helps the non-HIP audience a great deal in appreciating their interpretation.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro non troppo (2/4)

7’31”; 1/2 = 64
Very impressive how they “sneak” into this movement, by playing real p / pp, without any vibrato — and yet exceptionally clean in the intonation, particularly in these tricky parallel octaves! Despite the lack of vibrato, the interpretation never sounds “crude” / raw, or aggressive — but without being excessively polished. Also, they stick to the basic “p attitude” in this movement (most of the movement is p, f sections are the exception). The articulation is light, the articulation very careful, the phrasing “speaking”, agogics are used mostly on a smaller scale, and are never conspicuous. Back to the vibrato: there is one single instance where I noted a very moderate vibrato — in the recap section, in that “messa di voce” on the long e”’ flat in the first violin.

II. Andante con moto (6/8)

8’52”; 3/8 = 31
Simply excellent, with good tempo (not too slow), and again with very rare vibrato! It’s obviously a myth that in order to create expression in slow movements one must use vibrato! Here, this movement is intimate, quiet, calm, contemplative — and their intonation is again impeccable! It’s astounding how they manage this movement in the ppp to p range: the sforzati are subtle, not little explosions, not disruptive as with the newer Hagen Quartett recording. Also, it’s amazing how Alina Ibragimova resists showing off in highly exposed sections: to the contrary, she tends to take back the tone to the lowest possible volume (such that one can still hear her voice), e.g., when the melody ascends to very high notes! I like this interpretation more than any other one in this comparison!

III. Menuetto: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)

5’22”; 1/4 = 168 (Menuetto: Allegro) — 1/4 = 150 (Trio)
This isn’t nearly as extreme as the new recording of the Hagen Quartett, not that harsh — but nevertheless simply excellent: the articulation is at least as good, if not better (certainly more “violinistic”), more careful, especially in the first violin, not exaggerating the tempo, such that also details in the melody and the phrasing remain clear and audible. In addition, they use very distinct agogics. The Trio differs entirely: here, this often sounds like the imitation of a hurdy-gurdy, the tempo only slightly slower than in the Menuetto. Overall: playful, and still a Menuetto, avoiding real extremes.

IV. Allegro vivace (2/4)

5’54”; 1/4 = 152
Very nice, virtuosic, yet very “violinistic” and natural, especially in articulation in the first violin, excellent playing overall, with very distinct agogics (more than in any other movement); no “showing off” for sure, not resorting to gags / show elements, but with a clear concept, vibrato once more just in that long e”’ flat in the first violin, 19 bars from the end. I particularly like Alina Ibragimova’s soft, yet clear articulation, her unobtrusive attitude.

Recommendation:Definitely my new favorite! Sure, they are young and still have evolution potential — but this recording already is phenomenal! They avoid extremes (certainly not doing extremes just to be different), don’t try showing off, yet they are technically superior. Their intent is not to shock the audience, but clearly, to provide a superior, historically informed interpretation and performance. If you are a fan of traditional interpretations and think that continuous vibrato is required, you may not like this one — at least, be prepared for a (mild) shock!
Rating:5.0 (5 / 5 / 5 / 5)

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2 thoughts on “Mozart: String Quartet No.16 in E♭ major, K.428”

  1. Greetings, Rolf
    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    String Quartet No.16 in E♭ major, K.428
    Media Review / Comparison
    is most excellent.
    I am in awe.
    One would have suspected you were a professionally trained musician.
    You are a Chemist!
    Your interpretations – in my judgment-
    are on point.
    K 428 is certainly not an easy piece of his to assimilate and characterize.
    “ To me, this is just about as revolutionary as the opening to Wagner’s Vorspiel to “Tristan und Isolde” — though here, it wasn’t meant to spark a revolution, but merely to upset the audience”


    • Hi Gary,
      thanks for visiting & reading — your comment is flattering, especially as it refers to a posting that is now 11 years old! I am maintaining all my posts, though, which also explains why my productivity (in terms of new posts) is not what it used to be. That said, I do try to “dilute” concert reviews in order to devote more time to CD reviews. We’ll see what comes out of this…
      The “Chemist” is my previous life, and now all in the distant past. I have no regrets whatsoever, though. Actually, the first version of this posting dates from my “first life”!
      Best wishes!


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