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 so 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 around 50 minutes (depending on the observance of all the repeats, as well as tempos). 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 dazzling variety - of tone, dynamics, expression and ornamentation. And his vibrancy of tone 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 elegant, vibrant 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. Teaming up with the incomparable Grumiaux Trio makes for a match made in heaven.
If one can get past the Cosmo pose of Emmanuel Pahud on the cover, his readings are delightful, with characterful, articulate string soloists. His tone is sweet, his phrasing is musical, and his pianissimos are ravishing. His pillowy articulation, too, is always a marvel. Add in EMI's plush, reverberant acoustic and it's all 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, and the playing of the fabulous Tokyo String Quartet is beyond reproach. 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 +++
Jean Claude Gerard - Naxos 1990
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 his instantly recognizable, golden sound. But his wide, insistent vibrato can get to be too much by the end. And combined with rather leisurely tempos, this Mozart is more heavily Romantic than usual. The Tokyo String Quartet saves the day, however. 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 warm sound is beautiful, if a bit too rich.
Jean Claude Gerard 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 not one of their best. The recording sets the performers way back within a massively over-reverberant hall. The flute is fairly well focused but the strings are somewhat indistinct. It's a real pity, because Gerard's playing is sparkling, characterful and joyous. But the cavernous acoustic is a distraction. This one could have been included in the higher category with better recorded sound.
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 (even more so than Gerard on Naxos). 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)
Lisa Friend (Brodsky Quartet) - Chandos 2017
Jean-Pierre Rampal - CBS 1969
The Nash Ensemble - Virgin 1988 **
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.
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. His 1969 recording of the Mozart quartets is a prime example. With very fast Allegros and Rondeaus, it sounds almost frivolous. (He flies through these in a record 46 minutes!) The CBS recording doesn't help. I have it on the 1987 budget Odyssey CD, which sounds cramped and 2-dimensional. The strings are closely mic'd, leaving Rampal's flute sounding smaller and even more "birdy" than usual. Plus, there's an odd nasal coloration all through. 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 an odd order? The C Major, K285b (#3) 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!
And the disappointments
Jean-Pierre Rampal - CBS 1986
Jennifer Stinton - Collins Classics 1992
Carol Wincence (Emerson Quartet) - DG 2006
Rampal's 1986 digital remake (also for CBS, and again with Isaac Stern) has more natural sound than his earlier one, but it's still a bit 2-dimensional and congested. The sense of haste from the earlier readings is gone, replaced by a pervading feel of routine. He is not helped by the strings, who, despite the starry lineup, sound rather disinterested. There is nowhere near the joy or good spirits heard in the earlier sessions. After two tries at them, I'm afraid Rampal just isn't terribly inspired by these quartets. And CBS has done him no favors in either instance, with mediocre recorded sound.
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. While timings are never the whole story, it's worth noting that Stinton (while observing just the standard repeats) takes a whopping 57 minutes to get through these quartets. 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 enthusiasm and spirited tempos, but her "whoo-ey" tone and mega-vibrato are wholly inappropriate for Mozart. She plays with a joy missing in many recordings, but the incessant intensity of her vibrato spoils it. It's really incomprehensible why she can't (won't) modify her distinctive tone when the music absolutely demands it. Despite the excellent playing of the Emerson Quartet, I couldn't tolerate it for very long. Of all the flutists the Emerson Quartet could have teamed up with, this one is puzzling.
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.
I found this project particularly rewarding, enjoyable and enriching. But at the end of the day, after listening to these recordings over and over to compile this survey, there is just one which steadfastly remains my favorite. And that is the #1 selection in the list - the one from Oxalys. I never tire of it; it is always a life-affirming experience, no matter how often I hear it. It's the CD I pull from my shelves, without hesitation, every time I'm in the mood to just sit back and enjoy these wonderful quartets. And I can give no greater recommendation than that.
+ 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