I love Mozart's Flute Quartets. Two reviews of them already appear elsewhere on this blog (Schaaff/Pentatone and Trevisani/Delos), both of which are just fine, but neither is a primary recommendation. And now I must point out a couple to avoid altogether. I really want (need) to review some of my favorites (two of which are mentioned in the final paragraph below), so I will commit to working on an overview in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, I have recently come across two recordings which I have somehow missed over the years. First, the Emerson Quartet's 1991 DG left me skeptical from the get go, seeing who their flutist was. And, as it turns out, rightfully so. And the Nash Ensemble, on Virgin, usually provide solid performances. But, not so much here, I'm afraid.
Starting with the DG: I like Carol Wincenc, in that her distinctive tone is instantly recognizable, just as Galway's is. But it is different from his, and not necessarily in a good way. Her wide, almost queasy vibrato is always present no matter the repertoire. And it gets old fast. In fact, it is so intrusive to the music she plays, it's nearly impossible to listen past it.
To hear her at her best, though, listen to Charles Griffes's gorgeous Poem, on Falletta's wonderful Naxos CD of that composer's music. Wincenc's "whoo-ey", vibrato-rich sound suits that piece perfectly. It is hauntingly beautiful. But to use that same tone, intensity and mega-vibrato in Mozart is ill-advised and musically inappropriate. It is tasteless, to the point of being garish and gaudy. Mozart is soon forgotten, and instead, one can't hear past that distinctive Carol Wincenc sound in repertoire which does not lend itself to it.
As a former flute player, I know the technique necessary to make that "whoo-ey" sound she produces. And I know you can stop doing it and make a more "normal" flute sound - if you want to. I also know you can alter the speed and intensity of your vibrato - if you want to. Apparently, Ms. Wincenc doesn't want to. Ever. She is unwilling to change her sound even when music requires it, such as here in Mozart. And it's a pity, because she plays with a joyousness not always heard in these quartets.
The playing of the Emerson Quartet, on the other hand, is at all times stylish, alert, crisp, and, most of all, tasteful. Their choice of flutist for these quartets is most unfortunate. Why they teamed up with her, of all the gazillion flutists in the world, is puzzling - particularly for Mozart.
I can be brief with the Nash Ensemble. On this Virgin 2-fer, the 1988 sound is great. It's rather more up-front and well-focused than typical for Virgin. Thus it has tremendous presence and command. Unfortunately, it's just about as plain-jane a performance as one could imagine. Flutist, Philippa Davies, plays it completely straight, just the notes on the page, with none of the usual ornamentation we normally hear, and, oddly, with trills beginning firmly on the printed note rather than the one above it, which is customary. There is precious little inspiration, but is rather a ho-hum, "let's just get it over with", sight-reading of it. What's odd (and so disappointing) about this is that the companion recordings of the Oboe and Horn Quartets on disc one, are beautifully played and much more involving.
I would recommend just about any other recording of these glorious quartets over these on DG and Virgin. My two primary recommendations are: William Bennett (1969, Philips), whose clear, bright, sparkling flute tone is a constant joy to listen to; and, my favorite of all, that from Oxalys (2004, Fuga Libera), who provide a stylistically correct interpretation which is refreshing, inspiring and uplifting. Both helpfully come with fabulous recorded sound.