Quartet in D minor K.421

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

Performance date: 04/07/2014

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1783

Duration: 00:23:03

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTE

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Vanbrugh Quartet (Gregory Ellis, Keith Pascoe [violins] Simon Aspell [viola] Christopher Marwood [cello]) - [quartet]

This dark-coloured, multi-faceted quartet
is the second of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, famously
describing them as his children and the
fruit of long and laborious efforts.
Mozart had never said this about any
of his other works. We cannot hear the effort involved but the intensity and
concentration of the process of composition can be seen on the manuscript
scores, nowhere else does Mozart make so many corrections, strewn above
crossed-out tempi and dynamic markings.

These quartets that Mozart worked on so
hard over a three year period were his response to Haydn’s recent publication
of his so-called Russian Quartets (Op.33). The development of the string
quartet was still in its infancy so the two friends were making up the rules as
they went along, with Mozart building on the foundations laid by the older
composer. The quartets he dedicated to Haydn were not commissions and were
almost certainly composed for his own artistic fulfilment and to gain the
respect of Haydn, but economic necessity may have played a part in dragging out
the composition process. This was a time when quartets were almost entirely for
domestic performance by amateur players. Mozart would regularly host chamber
music evenings at his house and his friends, including Haydn and other Viennese
composers like Dittersdorf, would join him to play their quartets – Haydn would
play first fiddle and Mozart the viola, an event a musical time-traveller would
dearly like to witness.

The D minor quartet is the second in the
sequence and Constanze used to say that Mozart wrote it while she was in labour
with their first child. She even claimed her cries were scored in the great
outburst in the second movement. There is a school of thought that considers
all Mozart’s D minor works speak of darkness and tragedy and that the tragic
demeanour of the music reflected some terrible event in the composer’s life,
which is hardly the case with this work. Much more likely an explanation for
the presence of the minor key was the convention that one work in a set of six
should be in the appropriate minor key and Mozart seizes the opportunity to
create a wonderful palette of colours. Played with gut strings the melodic
contours, the descending bass and the expressive language even recall the
Baroque era. After the exposition repeat there is a short but intense
development full of rich, dark colours. Mozart asks for a repeat of the
development and recapitulation, a request that modern performance tends to
ignore. The movement ends firmly upbeat despite being in the minor.

The Andante is a sombre movement with its
quietly elegiac theme and its curious hesitancies and sudden outcries. There is
a short central section that briefly lightens the mood with its song. The minor
key is held relentlessly in the severe and many-voiced Minuet. In dazzling
contrast, the Trio provides a ray of sunshine, the first violin playing a
popular folk melody over a pizzicato serenade-like accompaniment. The Finale is
a set of four variations and coda on a plaintive theme in Siciliano rhythm.
Early on we hear a rhythmic motif in triplets on a single note, which is to
reappear as a leitmotiv in the third variation and more dramatically in the
coda. The first variation sees the first violin part richly ornamented. The
second has great sport with misplacing the accents, upsetting the rhythm to
great effect. The third variation is given to the viola while the leitmotiv
reasserts itself in the upper voices. The transformation of the theme in the
final variation borders on the magical, revealing a transient beauty that is
gradually swept away by the return of the leitmotiv in the coda, where it rises
to a passionate fortissimo before leading the way to the closure.