Of all the composer-devoted and subscription
sets in the 78 era – one thinks of Delius,
Sibelius, Wolf and Medtner among many
– the Haydn Quartet series performed
by the Pro Arte was one of the most
impressive. To commit such a body of
repertoire to disc was a risky commercial
venture and required an ensemble of
fluency and feeling. The Pro Arte were
a suitably dextrous ensemble steeped
in Franco-Belgian procedures and - in
the case of one quartet they’d never
encountered before they found it on
their stands in the EMI studios - usefully
quick sight readers.
The performances are
all being re-issued in Pristine Audio’s
series, of which these are the first
two in a run of eight discs. As usual
they can be acquired in MP3 format as
well as two different price brackets
of CD – Standard or Premium. Details
can be found on their site.
All the quartets have
been re-released by Testament in two
box sets, along with the Hoffmeister
quartets so long attributed to Haydn
and it remains to be seen whether Pristine
Audio will get around to those, though
I hope they do. The question here is
not so much performances - these are
well-loved traversals - so much as transfers.
In a review of the first Brahms Sextet
disc with The Pro Arte and colleagues
Pini and Hobday from 1935 I outlined
some of the competing transfer philosophies
between Pristine Audio and Biddulph.
The same kind of aesthetic decisions
apply when comparing them with Testament.
If you want almost
complete shellac suppression you will
be happy with this new transfer. It
has a warm, cavernous sound, but one
that can get gelatinous in the lower
frequencies. It has the effect
of making the playing seem heavier,
actually more Germanic than it actually
is, in terms of tonal weight and attack.
The sound is nicely forward though,
very present, almost a 1950s Decca soundscape,
though it’s one that I find consistently
I would say that switching
from Pristine Audio to Testament can
sometimes make the latter sound a touch
chilly but one does get far more studio
ambience and colour in the earlier transfer.
The end result is a muffling of corporate
sonority and a loss of the myriad left
and right hand flexibilities and colouristic
devices for which the quartet was famed.
That said I know many will prefer the
ridding of shellac crackle and will
be prepared to accept the resultant
noise suppression. If you’d not heard
the previous transfers or any of the
78s from which they derive you might
be well happy with this set. In point
of fact you might anyway. My own inclination
is far removed from this kind of work
but there is room in this field for
all sorts of transfer priorities.