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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets

The Haydn Quartet Society Volume 1

Quartet in C major Op.20 No.2 [16.58]
Quartet in C major Op.33 No.3 [16.09]
Quartet in G major Op.77 No.1 [22.03]
The Pro Arte Quartet
Recorded 1930s

The Haydn Quartet Society Volume 2

Quartet in D major Op.33 No.6 [12.45]
Quartet in G major Op.54 No.1 [16.19]
Quartet in C major Op.54 No.2 [17.22]
Quartet in G minor Op.74 No.3 The Rider [16.29]
The Pro Arte Quartet
Recorded 1930s
mp3 download

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 lacks air.

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.

Jonathan Woolf


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