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String Quartets - Volume 2
String Quartet Op.64 No.6 in E-flat (1790) [16:17]
String Quartet Op.77 No.1 in G (1799) [23:31]
String Quartet Op.20 No.4 in D (1722) [23:39]
rec. June 2008, Hervormde Kerk, Rhoon
CLASSICS CCSSA28209 [68:30]
This is volume two of
a projected recording of Haydn’s entire output for string
quartet – at least, this seems implicit from the CD booklet,
which states that the highly regarded Amsterdam String
Quartet will be performing all of these works in 2009.
Released on hybrid SACD, these tracks are also available
as MP3 downloads at lesser cost. The SACD release has Channel
Classics’ typically high standard of sound quality, with
plenty of close detail as well as a healthy sense of fresh
air between the players and that clean ‘Reformed Church’ acoustic:
you can close your eyes and visualise all that white paint,
well kept woodwork and stone flags polished smooth by the
feet of many generations.
Amsterdam String Quartet’s hallmark is absolute refinement
in terms of sound, phrasing, articulation and intonation.
I’m quite used to the ‘period instrument sound’ when it
comes to string quartets. It’s quite often a more transparent
sound than with the higher tension modern strings, and
there is a kind of natural ‘grain’ to the tone of individual
notes which collectively gives a different colour to modern
quartet. While initially a little thinner in quality, especially
in the higher registers, these period instruments nonetheless
have plenty of dynamic contrast and expressive potential.
The Amsterdam Quartet are clear experts and these are very
fine performances, but almost from the outset I found myself
wondering if the very ‘authenticity’ in these recordings
would be something which Haydn himself would have recognised
or enjoyed. Vibrato is use very sparingly here, which is
something I generally applaud, but all the way through
I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that this quartet
was more involved in their own sophistication than with
what Haydn is really expressing in the music. This is a
very subjective area and I will be the first to admit that
one man’s Champagne is another man’s Lambrusco, but for
me these recordings – extremely beautiful, cultured and
superior as they are – just ain’t all that much fun.
like with like, I unearthed an old Harmonia Mundi box from
the 1990s which also boasts period instrument recordings,
with the Hungarian Quatuor Festetics. I had remembered
this as being a bit more rough and ready, but in fact this
quartet also has plenty of subtlety and refinement, pushing
the boat out a great deal more in terms of drama and contrast
of sonority. The opening Allegro of the String
Quartet Op.64 No.6 is a real gallery of fluxing imagery
and musical narrative, and with the Festetics Quartet I
had much more the feeling of a journey of educated substance.
Back in the world of the Amsterdam Quartet, and I’m being
pampered and treated to the ultimate powder and wig treatment,
but ultimately looking through a rather more two dimensional
mirror. The rhythms don’t bounce along enough, the melodic
lines are the perfectly placed lines of a Rembrandt etching,
but printed from a plate which has been used a few times
too many, and has lost the life-blood of those first imprints.
The moments of lively contrast don’t reach out and grab,
the intensity of the passages of counterpoint is lost.
It’s all exquisite, but it’s a museum perfection – untouchable
and overly precious, frustratingly close but held under
glass and watched over by the uniformed guards of Good
how very dare I be critical. To be fair, there are
lovely touches all the way through this recording. The
little glissandi in the Allegretto section of the
third movement of the Op.64 quartet are very sweet, but
I am less keen on the big breaks between sections in this
kind of movement and would have preferred greater continuity.
The great String Quartet Op.77 nr.1 in G stands
out as a masterpiece in any collection, but, while again
enjoying the fine playing on this recording I missed any
real depth – you can have smooth, but without any real
roughness it’s like having guacamole without any tortilla
chips. I would have appreciate a bit more weight in the
cello sound in this quartet and elsewhere as well, though
this is sometimes a side effect of gut strings, needing
a bit more oomph to establish resonance and being less
wieldy in passages with more notes. The racy Finale
Presto suits the lighter sound of this quartet well
with notes being tossed around with suitable abandon. There
is more light and shade built into the opening movement
of the String Quartet Op.20 nr.4 in D and the Amsterdam
players build a nice tension in the quietest of passages.
The ‘hobbling’ rhythm of the little Menuetto is
nicely turned but, again, it’s just too porcelain
and perfect – I want to be falling over my own shoelaces
when it comes on, not staring dreamily at the clouds in
that wonderful painted ceiling.
don’t want you to have the impression that I ‘have it in
for’ the Amsterdam String Quartet – after all, they only
live just down the road from me and are I am sure quite
capable of coming round and jabbing me with their music
stands. This is a recording and performance of extremely
high standard. I’ve been living with it, playing it on
an MP3 player while biking to work as well as enjoying
it as a full hi-fi experience, trying to shake myself free
of all those annoying frustrations I have about the playing.
They are still there however, and re-discovering the combination
of bracing energy and expressive warmth in the Festetics
Quartet has gone some way to making me realise what I miss
in these new recordings. If it’s absolute refinement and
perfect poise in clean early-music purity and state of
the art SACD sound you are after, then this is a very nice
place to bathe in these limpid wonders. If it’s Haydn in
all his colourful guises you want, then I would politely
suggest that other interpretations are available.
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