Sony's budget-priced reissue campaign proceeds apace. A few months ago, they exhumed the Juilliard String Quartet's estimable traversals of Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets and String Quintets from the CBS vaults; now from the old RCA catalog comes an equally distinguished traversal of the same repertoire by the Guarneri Quartet. Since both sets are quite inexpensive, chamber music enthusiasts might want to purchase both, for the approaches of these two distinguished American ensembles provide sharp and fascinating contrasts. Whereas the Juilliard favor a lean collective tone, incisive attacks and strong rhythmic articulation, the Guarneri's favor a sweetly lyrical approach, more leisurely tempos, and an elegant, even suave manner. They also strive to maintain the "long line" at all costs, thereby bringing out the "vocal" and operatic qualities in Mozart's chamber music. Both approaches are valid--the Juilliards leaning more toward a Classical style, and the Guarneri's toward a proto-romantic interpretation that harks back to mid-Twentieth Century Viennese ensembles such as the Konzerthaus Quartet, the Baryllis and the Wellers.
The results, in the case of the Guarneri's readings (no less than the Juilliard's) are simply splendid. Mozart opined that operatic ensembles should "flow like oil," and that metaphor aptly describes the Guarneri's traversals of all twelve of these wonderful works. The Haydn Quartets come from the early 1970's and find the ensemble in splendid form; slow movements, in particular, are deeply considered and ensemble throughout is near-perfect. The engineers provide a warm ambience without sacrificing clarity; at all times the four instruments are clearly audible.
The Quintets derive from the late 1980's, and were taken down at live concerts. Three distinguished violists participate in two Quintets apiece. The interpretations are, in a word, magnificent. These musicians clearly appreciate the intricacy of Mozart's craftsmanship no less than his profound, and profoundly unsettling, expression of the human condition with all its ambiguities and paradoxes. The Guarneri and their distinguished guest violists also cultivate a fully conversational style, in which each performer responds to the others in dialogic fashion. In other words, these are genuine chamber music performances, not occasions for five virtuosos to exhibit their talents (though there is no want of virtuosity when required; apart from one or two momentary intonational lapses, the playing is immaculate throughout). The three greatest Quintets (the C-Major, G-Minor and D-major) are given performances that approach sublimity, and once again the slow movements are presented as the heart of each work. The engineering is as fine here as with the studio recordings of the Haydn Quartets. There is plenty of hall ambience, though not so much as to muddy the textures, and there are no distracting audience noises.
In sum then, this distinguished set of Mozart chamber music that deserves to rank alongside the finest versions of the Haydn Quartets and Viola Quintets --including the Juilliard versions mentioned above, as well as those by the Amadeus, the Budapest, and the Pro Arte (the latter are classic performances from the 78-rpm era last seen in an early-1990's set from EMI). As usual with this new series from Sony, there is minimal documentation. But the music is the thing, and on that score listeners will not be disappointed. Warmly recommended, then, both to veteran collectors and to those looking for a "basic library selection."