Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Mozart's String Quintets. And Arthur Grumiaux

Ask 100 music cognoscenti to name the three greatest composers, and you will almost certainly end up with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Ask them for the ten greatest, and the fighting will start. I recall a twitty young journalist a few years back who insisted on listing the seven greatest composers – amongst whom he included Mahler and Stravinsky!

I will agree with the traditional top three. If I had to slim it down to the top two, it would be: Bach, and Mozart. Listening today again to the six Mozart string quintets (with two violas) one has to recognise that, even at the age of seventeen with the early quintet K 174, Mozart was not content with merely writing fluent, agreeable music. Even at seventeen years old, he was pushing the envelope of harmony and development. And the other five quintets went on to explore even greater depths and feats of daring. I grew up with the miraculous K 516 in G minor (with an early LP from the Amadeus Quartet). Subsequently, I took in the other five works. Today, despite competing versions, I will settle happily for the (augmented) Grumiaux Trio, recorded in the 1970s. Arthur Grumiaux was an incredible violinist, particularly in the classical repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. His duo recordings with Clara Haskil in Mozart and Beethoven are, rightly, regarded as something of a gold standard in recorded music. He played and recorded (thanks to Philips) almost the entire violin literature, but it is his playing of the older classics that really stands out – plus much of the Franco-Belgian musical heritage. We have the Dutch Philips company to thank for its long-term recording support of Grumiaux; and also for its excellent recording team (a tradition that the team carried over to the Pentatone label after the sale of Philips).

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