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Matangi Quartet - Première
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

String Quartet No.12 in C minor, D.703 ‘Quartettsatz’ (1820) [09:35]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

String Quartet in D major, Op. 20/4 ‘Sun Quartets’ (1772) [28:28]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

String Quartet No.12 in F major, Op.96 (B.179) ‘American’ (1893) [25:43]
Matangi Quartet: (Maria-Paula Majoor (violin); Daniel Torrico Menacho (violin); Karsten Kleijer (viola); Nander Cirkel (cello))
rec. Studio van Schuppen, Veenendaal, Holland. Date not provided.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72164 [64:10]

Formed in 1999 the Matangi Quartet from The Hague, Holland have achieved a number of impressive accomplishments in a relatively short period of time. In 2002 they received the Almere Chamber Music Award and the Anton Kersjes Award and continue to work closely with the world famous Amadeus Quartet. This issue on independent Dutch record label Challenge Records, titled Première, is stated as the debut release from the Matangis. I have noticed at least one other recording from the Matangis under the title ‘Scandinavia’ featuring string quartets from Grieg; Monrad Johansen and Röntgen.

Schubert’s ‘Quartettsatz comes just after the famous Quintet in A major The Trout’ and shortly before the equally famous Symphony No. 8 Unfinished’. The score is an enigma since it consists of an extended single movement. It is thought that Schubert intended the work to be the opening movement to a traditional four movement string quartet. It is not known why Schubert didn’t write the other movements. Marked Allegro assai the Quartettsatz’ movement is one of Schubert’s finest chamber compositions.

The Matangi is fresh and fully committed in the ‘Quartettsatz’. There is vigour to their playing but they cannot match the assurance of rival versions from the Lindsays on Resonance and the Brandis Quartet on Brilliant Classics. I detected some unsteadiness from the leader that would unduly unsettle the technical security of the quartet.

My first choice for the ‘Quartettsatz’ is a thrilling performance from the Lindsay Quartet that emphasises the exciting and dramatic power and broad ideas of the score. It is available as part of a commemorative four disc box of Schubert’s late string quartets, to mark their disbandment in July 2005 (Sanctuary Classics Resonance RSB 403). The Brandis give a finely judged account that contains a special warmth; recorded in 1995 available on a double set Brilliant Classics 92288.

Haydn’s Op. 20/4 forms part of his Op. 20 set of six scores that are generally regarded as the first real masterpieces of string quartet writing. This set has become known as the ‘Sun Quartets after a design of a publisher’s trademark. Haydn developed each quartet as an individual character and managed to achieved an impressive and distinctive range of tone-qualities from all four instruments.

There is a rather tentative start from the Matangis in the opening movement Allegro di molto. However matters improve and their biting attack in the sturdy main motif is impressive at points 0:32-0:35; 0:38-0:41; 2:34-2.37 and 2:40-2:43. Here the nobility attained by the Quatuor Mosaïques on Naïve Astrée is never in sight. In the Un poco adagio e affettuoso the recurring gypsy-like theme is excitingly played by the Matangis and their control in the dreamy passages is impressive. In the very short minuet, marked Allegretto alla Zingarese, complete with the folk-like melodies, the players at times seem to lose their way. The Dutch players provide a reading of infectious wit and rhythm in the brilliant Presto e scherzando final movement. Overall the Matangis could have improved their security of ensemble but their ardour and devotion for this Haydn score is never in doubt.

My preferred version of Haydn’s Op. 20/4 is the highly refined and perceptive performance from Quatuor Mosaïques on Naïve Astrée E 8802. Founded in 1985 Mosaïques are undoubtedly the finest string quartet performing on authentic instruments and have in my view produced benchmark recordings of quartets by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart. I also often play the fresh and joyous account on modern instruments from the Kodály Quartet that was recorded in the pleasing acoustic of the Unitarian Church in Budapest in 1992 on Naxos 8.550702.

During his stay in America from 1892 to 1895 Dvořák composed some of his finest works, culminating in 1893 with his famous Symphony No.9 From the New World’. Dvořák spent his summer holidays at a Bohemian colony at Spillville, Iowa where he felt immediately at home, finding happiness and security in the company of his émigré countrymen. There Dvořák composed his String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 ‘American’ to instant acclaim and a enduring popularity.

In the ‘American Quartet the Matangis attack the extended opening movement Allegro ma non troppo rapidly with an excess of eagerness that loses an element of nostalgia. There is some unsteadiness, especially evident in the famous main theme at points 1:33-1:56 and 3:56-4:20 that prevents achieving the poetry of the rival versions from the Takács; Travnicek and Talich Quartets. A more consistently smooth approach from the Dutch players would have been preferable in the second movement Lento with the long and sensuous song-like melody which is the heart of the F major score. It has been said that the central theme of the Molto vivace movement was inspired by birdsong which is given a reading brimming with rhythmic vitality by the Dutch quartet. Evocative of country folk-dancing the concluding movement marked Vivace, ma non troppo is performed with masses of verve but the reading does not entirely convince owing to playing that verges on the unruly.

In this vastly competitive market for the ‘American Quartet I can suggest three alternative recordings from my collection that I believe are in a different league to this release. My principal recommendation is from the original Hungarian line-up of the Takács who had a special affinity with Dvořák’s scores. The Grammy award-winning Takács offer a joyous performance from 1989 in the Henry Wood Hall, London contained on their four disc set ‘Takács Quartet - A Celebration released in recognition of their thirtieth anniversary season, on Decca 476 2802. The ardent expressiveness and dazzling rhythmic drive of the Takács is most impressive and I particularly enjoyed their splendid interpretation of the folk-song like melodies and dance rhythms in the final movement.

I have a great personal affection for the satisfyingly expressive 1994 performance from the Travnicek Quartet on Discover DICD 920248. Another rewarding and insightful version that I admire is from the renowned Talich Quartet as a part of a three disc Dvořák box on Calliope CAL 3229.1. An acclaimed account likely to be encountered, although not a version that I know too well, comes from the Hagen Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon 419 601-2. There are also devotees of the performance from the Vlach Quartet, Prague on Naxos 8.553371.

The acceptable sound quality from Challenge Classics is cool and bright with a slightly forward balance. I found the booklet notes a disappointment as they provided little information about the three scores.

Overall I found the Matangis unable to come close to the poetry, refinement and sensitivity provided by the best of the rival versions. I would have preferred smoother playing and improved dynamic contrast with a more judicious selection of tempos. I didn’t always enjoy the tone of the first violin and the cello playing wasn’t convincing either. Not surprisingly there is much room for improvement in what I would describe as a ‘promising debut’ from this six year old quartet. On the evidence of this maiden release it is certainly worth following the progress of the Matangi.

Michael Cookson


 



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