[I have updated this survey as of 3/31/21, with a slightly revised ranking (including an additional category), and one late addition to the list (Jennifer Stinton).]
The Flute Quartets are among my favorite Mozart creations. I listen to them so often, and have so many recordings of them, I decided I really should write up an overview. I cannot claim to have heard every recording available, but I have heard a lot of them. And it's fascinating to discover that these works seem to bring out the very best from many of the flutists who've recorded them. Most are so enjoyable, it's relatively rare to encounter a truly bad recording of them (well, there are a few - see below). I have struggled with ranking them, but feel satisfied with this final list.
I will state emphatically that I am not a "period performance" fan. Therefore none of my recommendations includes any played on recorder or any which self-professes to be "original" or "original instruments".
Regarding the strings: I have listed ensemble names (in parentheses) if they are an established group (e.g. a string quartet), as opposed to individual players gathered for a recording session. And it is understood that named string quartets are missing their 2nd violinist, as only 3 players are utilized in these flute quartets.
And regarding couplings: these quartets are self-contained and life-affirming, and therefore can stand alone on CD, with an approximate/average playing time of just under an hour. However, some discs do offer a coupling. And as welcome as they are, they have not affected my ranking in this survey in any way. They are detailed at the very bottom, for informational purposes only.
The very best
1. Oxalys - Fuga Libera 2004 (reissued on Passacaille 2017) +
2. Karl-Heinz Schutz - Camerata 2014 (Japanese import) ++
3. Gary Schocker (Chester Quartet) - Chesky 1995 ++
#1 and #2 are notable for being as close to "authentically Mozart" as I can imagine - on modern instruments - without the extremes of so-called "period" performance practices being applied. They just sound so very right that it is difficult to hear them played any other way. Yet, what makes them so special is they don't go out of their way to be deliberately "unusual". They do not stand out from the crowd for being different, but for being absolutely right. They are utterly natural in every conceivable way.
The most salient characteristics of both performances are: 1) a variety of flute sound (the ability to adjust tone/tonal color and vibrato, as appropriate); 2) clarity of texture and purity of text, including a judicious employment of ornamentation, lending a stylistically authentic feel; 3) perfectly chosen, lively tempos; and above all, 4) an irrepressible sense of joy. And while these two performances are very similar in these regards, Karl-Heinz Schutz (Vienna Philharmonic solo flutist) adds one more level of sublime musical bliss - his is hands-down the most musical and gracious of any I have heard.
Schutz would be #1 for me if not for the consummate perfection of Oxalys. Oxalys is a chamber group which is used to playing together, not just assembled for this recording. Their unanimity of approach and ensemble is unmatched. But the real attraction is flutist, Toon Fret. He plays with phenomenal variety - of tone, dynamics, expression and ornamentation - which is endlessly enthralling. And his vibrancy in piano passages, even when utilizing very little vibrato, is simply exquisite. This is the most uplifting and joyful Mozart I have ever experienced. All of which, combined with the most natural and realistic recording, secures their place firmly at the top.
Gary Schocker's recording came as a total shock (sorry...pun intended). He's completely unknown to me, and from what I can ascertain, based upon searches of his recording oeuvre, he appears to be something of a Folk artist. His albums all come with titles such as "Healing Music", "Flute Forest", "Airborne", "For Dad", etc. And then...there's Mozart! That this one appears on the Chesky label afforded it some credibility in my view, and I obtained a copy. Chesky is one of the early, great "audiophile" labels, specializing in digital recordings of new-age jazz ensembles and expertly remastered Classical material, mainly from RCA and Reader's Digest. This Mozart is an original Chesky digital recording, and it is stunning in its clarity and realism - bright, open, clear, detailed, and "present". And Schocker proves to be a formidable flutist, possessing a beautiful, crystalline sound and very stylish playing. It is abundantly clear from the very first note there is a sense of new discovery about his playing which is absolutely thrilling.
The very good (listed alphabetically)
William Bennett (Grumiaux Trio) - Philips 1969 *
Emmanuel Pahud - EMI 1999
Paula Robison (Tokyo String Quartet) - Vanguard 1978
William Bennett is the only "classic" flutist I can unhesitatingly recommend. His playing is notable for its simplicity; as is his tone, which is clear, elegant and resplendent. As a (former) flutist myself, Bennett has been one of my favorites through the decades, certainly eclipsing Rampal (and even Galway). Philips provides the warmth necessary to make his Mozart positively glow. And the playing of the fabulous Grumiaux Trio is an enormous benefit.
Pahud's readings are delightful, with characterful string soloists. His tone is sweet, his phrasing is musical, and his pianissimos are ravishing. His pillowy articulation, too, is always a joy to behold. Add in EMI's plush, reverberant acoustic and the Cosmo-style centerfold pose of Pahud on the cover, and it's charming and a bit romantic (small "r" intentional).
Paula Robison brings boundless energy to these works, with exuberant tempos all through. If it's almost too robust for Mozart, there is no denying her ringing, vibrant tone is simply irresistible. The analog Vanguard sound exemplifies her sound gloriously. This one just misses the top category by a whisker.
The good (listed alphabetically)
Sharon Bezaly (Salzburger Solisten) - BIS 1999
James Galway (Tokyo String Quartet) - RCA 1992/93 +++
Ulf-Dieter Schaaff - Pentatone 2017 (SACD)
Raffaele Trevisani - Delos 2015 ++
I was surprised Bezaly fares as well as she does. I am not a fan of her characteristic deadpan, expressionless sound, and I dislike her recording of the Mozart Concertos intensely. However, for these quartets, she produces a more expressive sound. And, perhaps inspired by these most joyful of works, this is one of her happiest recordings. I like her dynamic contrasts and the characterful interplay she develops with the individual string players. The BIS sound is a bit odd, though, with a slightly unnatural acoustic "halo" around the players, and a weird bloat to the cello.
James Galway is his usual, reliable self, with that instantly recognizable, golden sound adding more Romanticism to Mozart than usual (and his insistent vibrato can get to be too much by the end). But it's actually the Tokyo String Quartet which makes these special. They are one of my very favorite string quartets and this is really their show. Galway is along to provide the glamour. And glamorous it is. RCA's bright, warm sound compliments it nicely.
Ulf-Dieter Schaaff is just fine (see my full review elsewhere on this blog), but definitely not in the top tier. His playing is slightly detached and a little chilly, and his tone tends to lose vibrancy during soft passages. (He actually reminds me a lot of Bezaly in this regard). But his tempos are cheery and he has the benefit of superb SACD surround sound from Pentatone.
I have reviewed Trevisani's Delos CD in detail elsewhere on my blog, so I shall be brief here. He possesses a rich, Galway-esque sound (he is a Galway protege), which is gorgeous and mercifully less vibrato-intensive than Galway's. But he's recorded in a huge, swampy church acoustic. His playing is pretty fabulous, but the poor choice of recording venue is most unfortunate - and disappointing, coming from one of my all-time favorite audiophile labels, Delos.
The also-rans (listed alphabetically)
Jean Claude Gerard - Naxos 1990
Jean-Pierre Rampal - CBS 1969
The Nash Ensemble - Virgin 1988 **
I've included Gerard's CD on this list because it appears on one of my favorite labels. But Naxos wasn't as consistently excellent in the early 90s as they are today. And this one from 1990 is one of their rare failures. The recorded sound is murky and distant, with the flute set way back within a massively over-reverberant hall. It literally sounds as if recorded in the local high school gymnasium. It's a pity, because Gerard's playing sounds characterful and joyous, with sparkling tone. But it's difficult to hear it through the cavernous acoustic.
Rampal's bird-like, sing-song tone can be pleasing, but he almost always sounds to me like he's sightreading. And not in a good way (one which might add spontaneity or freshness); but rather in an under-rehearsed, hurry-and-get-it-over-with way. This Mozart is a prime example. With very fast Allegros and slightly slack ensemble, it sounds almost frivolous. The CBS recording doesn't help. The sound is cramped and 2-dimensional, and the strings are closely mic'd, leaving Rampal's flute sounding smaller and even more "birdy" than usual. I have it on the 1987 budget Odyssey issue and I'm not sure a fresh remastering would help it. It's interesting to compare this CBS with the glorious Philips for Bennett, both recorded the same year.
Nothing special from The Nash Ensemble. Their playing is just as plain-jane as can be, despite good, close-up recorded sound. And why does Virgin present the Quartets in such a completely random order? The C Major, K285b, comes first, followed by #2, 1, then 4. The booklet is no help in explaining it, and hilariously only mentions just two of them in the text! So terribly odd.
And the ones to avoid...
Lisa Friend (Brodsky Quartet) - Chandos 2017
Jennifer Stinton - Collins Classics 1992
Carol Wincenc (Emerson Quartet) - DG 2006
There is really no reason to take Lisa Friend seriously, despite having the good fortune of being teamed up with the Brodsky Quartet on the premium Chandos label. The flute playing is average and the ensemble sounds a bit improvised. One wonders what Chandos was thinking with this one.
I was looking forward to Jennifer Stinton's disc on Collins Classics, one of the great Classical specialty labels of yore. And it starts off promisingly, with beautiful flute tone and a most spacious acoustic. However, it doesn't take long before tempos begin to drag and it becomes a rather dreary listen. Despite the wonderful recorded sound, this is the only recording in this survey where I actually lost interest before it was done. Ms. Stinton has a lovely sound, but that simply isn't enough. The lack of joy and inspiration is perplexing, and, frankly, left me feeling a bit depressed.
Carol Wincenc plays with sufficient life and joy, but her "whoo-ey" tone and mega-vibrato are wholly inappropriate for Mozart. Despite the excellent playing of the Emerson Quartet, I couldn't tolerate it for very long. It's really incomprehensible why she can't (won't) modify her distinctive tone when the music absolutely demands it. Of all the flutists the Emerson Quartet could have teamed up with, this one is puzzling.
One final comment
Many of the recordings listed herein are sadly out-of-print and are likely very difficult to find at this point (at least on a physical CD), even on the used market. Obtaining the unobtainable is part of the fun of this hobby. I do apologize if something I've described whets your appetite, only to find it's impossible to acquire.
+ Clarinet Quartet
++ Oboe Quartet (transcribed for flute)
+++ Clarinet Quintet (transcribed for flute)
* Compilation reissue. Philips Duo: Mozart Works for Flute (including concertos)
** Compilation reissue. Virgin Two-fer: Mozart Various Chamber music