Mozart: Dissonances (CD review)

String Quartets KV 421 and 465; Divertimento KV 138. Quatuor Ebene. Virgin Classics 50999 070922 2.

My Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines "dissonance" as "a simultaneous combination of tones conventionally accepted as being in a state of unrest and needing completion; an unresolved, discordant chord or interval." We don't usually associate such dissonance with the music of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), the widespread use of dissonance not coming into general musical prominence until the twentieth century. Yet here it is: Mozart's String Quartet No. 19 in C major, KV 465, nicknamed "Dissonance." And that's not all; as the ensemble Quatuor Ebene demonstrate with the other two compositions on the disc, Mozart seemed fond of this particular form of development and resolution.

The program opens with the String Quartet in D minor, KV 421, from 1783. Quatuor Ebene say that in order to interpret Mozart well, performers must have "absolute technical assurance" and the ability "to let go and bare all." These four young French musicians (Pierre Colombet, violin; Gabriel Le Magadure, violin; Mathieu Herzog, viola; Raphael Merlin, cello) appear to have mastered both areas. The KV 421 quartet displays a purity of line and a clarity of purpose that is hard to deny. The overall tone is a little darker, more somber, than most of Mozart's work, yet it's always gripping, especially in the hands of Quatuor Ebene.

Next, we get the Divertimento in F major, KV 138, a quartet Mozart wrote in 1772 and a distinct contrast to the pieces that bookend it. Generally bright and joyful, with a nostalgic central Andante, the work keeps the dissonance to a minimum, although it is in evidence even in so early a work.

Then we find the String Quartet in C major, KV 465, which got its "Dissonance" moniker largely from the solemn introduction of the opening Adagio. Its harmonic ambivalence soon dissolves, however, into a more-radiant spirit. Quatuor Ebene handle the transitions among the four movements smoothly, and they present the music's varying moods with a calm self-confidence and a radiant good cheer. My comparison here was a Teldec recording I had on hand by the Alban Berg Quartet, which seemed marginally more animated to me than that of Quartuor Ebene. Nevertheless, Quartuor Ebene constitute a fine group of performers who exhibit plenty of virtuosity, dash, charm, precision, and poise.

Virgin recorded the quartets at Ferme de Villefavard en Limousin, France, in 2011. The instruments appear fairly close up, making for a wide stereo spread, yet with a pleasant ambient glow around the notes. So, it's not as much an ultra-clear, clinical sound as it is a reasonably natural, well-articulated, if somewhat spacious one. Although I would liked to have heard a tad more distance involved, I have no serious complaints on this front since the sonics so well serve to illuminate the music.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa