Quartet in B flat K.589 ‘Prussian’

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
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Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)

Performance date: 03/07/2017

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1790

Duration: 00:28:48

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello]) - [quartet]

In May 1789 Mozart arrived in Berlin in
order to perform before the cello-playing King of Prussia. Musicians
knew of the King’s generosity to Boccherini, who, although living in
Spain, received a pension from the King in exchange for new
compositions. So naturally Mozart was hoping for similar munificence,
and he performed several times for the King, who was sufficiently
impressed to offer Mozart a post, the exact details of which have
been the subject of much fruitless speculation. Some think that
Mozart was offered a post along with a commission for a set of
quartets with a year to consider the proposal. Mozart left Berlin
with a fat purse of eight hundred gulden and hurriedly purchased some
music paper on the way home.

Research into different types of paper,
rather like advances in dendrochronology, has made it a lot easier to
date the composition of works when the original manuscript is still
extant. This paper story tells us that Mozart composed the first of
the so-called Prussian quartets and the first movement and a half of
the B flat on the journey home. But after that progress was, with
good reason, slow – Constanze was seriously and expensively ill with
yet another pregnancy, necessitating more loans and time-consuming
trips to the spa at Baden. A new production of Figaro was
imminent with new prima donnas, each demanding extra arias. And in
August he began on Così fan tutte for a production the
following January. And in between, Anton Stadler pestered him for a
new work for a Christmas concert – nothing less than the miraculous
Clarinet Quintet.

Mozart returned to the quartets in May
1790, when he completed the last two movements of both the B flat and
F major quartets, and even began a further quartet in E minor. We can
speculate that Mozart was trying hard to meet the King’s deadline,
but quickly realised this was no longer possible. This is also borne
out by the finales of both works, which pay far less special
attention to the King’s instrument, which had been such a feature of
the D major Quartet and the early movements of the B flat.

Curiously these late quartets of Mozart
are simpler and clearer than the six famous ones dedicated to Haydn.
The rich chromatic harmony of those masterworks has given way to a
transparent simplicity. With all the other pressing commitments he
faced it was natural that he took the less demanding route of simpler
harmonies and less dense counterpoint. The B flat Quartet begins with
a tranquil theme in the first violin, but this is soon given to the
cello. The second subject is announced by the cello before being
picked up by the first violin and a third idea is given to the solo
cello, only then moving up to the first violin.

The Larghetto opens with a
lovely cantilena for the King’s instrument, which is given
extraordinary prominence throughout the movement even being placed at
a much higher register than the accompanying violin. The movement is
in binary form, ABAB coda, uncomplicated except for the prominent
cello, and very beautiful. The Minuet begins as a stately dance that
soon transforms into something much more lively with brilliant
passages from the first violin and jovial comments from the lower
strings. The Trio is substantially longer than the main section and
contains the most elaborate music in the whole quartet. The Finale is
a light-hearted doffing of the hat to Haydn’s joke final movements,
almost entirely monothematic, idiosyncratic changes of time, sudden
pauses, a downbeat ending and high spirits throughout.

Francis Humphrys