The Alban Berg Quartet's earlier recordings of these pieces - indeed, all the last 10 Mozart string quartets - for Telefunken have long been among my favorites. They may not get under the music's skin as unfailingly as, say, the more intimate Quartetto Italiano readings on Philips. But their tonal sheen and quicksilver articulation make for incomparably elegant listening.
That is true of these new EMI performances, too. Tempos are still on the brisk side, in some cases more so than before, and I wouldn't have minded a tighter focus on the instruments, which have been captured in an even more reverberant acoustic.At the same time the brilliance cannot hide an increased probity on the group's part, most apparent, I think, in the D minor Quartet, K. 421. Here especially they seem less inclined to skim the surface, leaning a bit more into individual phrases and bringing out the music's darker underpinnings (e.g., the increased tension of the Menuetto).
By the same token the K. 499 Quartet now includes the first-movement exposition repeat, not taken on the Telefunken recording, along with a generally more inward view of the piece. Here that is achieved without giving up much in the way of spring and resiliency (cf. the rapid articulation of the counterpoint) as sometimes happens in the accompanying K. 575. But in each case the greater depth is welcome.
As it would be in the K. 387, the first of the six quartets dedicated to Haydn and still one of the most inventive works of its kind. (Witness its unconventional treatment of its minuet.) Instead the Berg has again opted for a more direct route, culminating in a tautly sprung finale that may be a bit less exhilarating than their earlier recording but is still pretty exciting, partly due to the increased dynamic range.
Certainly it must have been exciting music when new, and was, together with the K. 421, very likely among the pieces played at that famous quartet party in 1785 at which Haydn declared to Leopold Mozart, "Before God and as a man of honor, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer I know." After which he went home and proceeded to write some pretty great quartets of his own. But that is another story.