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Audiophilia, April 2011

The modern constitution of the piano quartet—piano plus violin, viola and cello—traces its lineage right back to Mozart, though the Classical era left us with few contributions to the repertoire. The Mozart quartet is adapted from an original 1784 Quintet for piano and winds (in a roughly contemporary arrangement, though it is unclear whether the composer himself had any involvement); inspired by that Quintet to write his own in 1797, the young Beethoven also provided an arrangement for piano quartet (the only one he ever published). Hummel will be less familiar to many readers, but as Haydn’s nominated successor at Esterhazy and a young protégé of Mozart’s, he is a significant figure whose presence lends an appropriate symmetry to this programme. Again, though, his piano quartet is the only example from his maturity. Its unusual two-movement form, and (to this writer) strong impression of a piano concerto in miniature, clearly distinguish it from the more conventional chamber music of the three-movement works; Mozart’s being wholly characteristic of his later period, Beethoven’s also quite typical of the sunnier output of his earlier years.

The lushness of string tone apparent from the disc’s opening bars, together with a notably relaxed approach, struck me immediately as ‘old-fashioned’—a reflection of how far period instrument sound and practice has intruded into Classical era performance. Within a couple of minutes, that impression had vanished, through a combination of superb recorded sound and the lauded Ames Quartet’s easy familiarity. With most recordings of piano quartets being made by a string trio with a pianist drafted in, the Ames Quartet is a rarity for being permanent—and it shows! If the overall style of these works is broadly familiar to us, the special sonority brought to them by the piano quartet is not, giving this disc a clearly-defined appeal in a crowded marketplace. Special kudos goes to Sono Luminus for including a photo of the recording session in their excellent liner notes, thus demonstrating the precise spatial arrangement used to achieve the recording’s glorious balance while also proving how faithfully that dimensionality has been captured on the disc. High fidelity indeed!

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