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Jonathan Woolf
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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Quartet Op.76 No.4 'Sunrise' (1796-97) [24:57]
Quartet Op. 3 No.5 “ Serenade” [16:37]
Quartet Op.76 No.2 (1796-97)   [28:22]
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1745-1805)
Quartet Op.39 No.3 [30:35]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Quartet No. 10 in E flat Op.74 “The Harp” (1809) [35:29]
Quartetto Italiano
rec. Basilica di S. Eufemia, Milan, March-April 1953, January 1955 and June 1956
TAHRA TAH647-8 [63:21 + 58:42]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a canny selection of relatively early recordings by the august Quartetto Italiano. They were made between 1953 and 1956 for Columbia. Collectors will know that the current emphasis in reissue circles falls on the Decca Beethovens (Early, Middle and Late), Mozart, Brahms, the famed Ravel-Debussy coupling and Schubert on Philips and Testament’s reissues of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, miscellaneous Italian repertoire (Galuppi, Cambini and the like) and the Moderns – Malipiero, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and others. The quartet began its discography with Decca, switched to Columbia and then finally recorded their long sequence for Philips.
Like the Smetana Quartet they played from memory until 1957 when the music stands returned. It’s something of a truism to speak of their fluidity, their bel canto lyricism and their avoidance of heavily weighted bowing.  Nevertheless it’s true. So when the notes talk of their combining Italian lyricism with German depth I rather part company. The Quartetto Italiano has always seemed to me something of an embodiment of the fusing of the French and Italian schools. It’s a kind of rigorously updated Pro Arte approach, one stripped of the occasionally overdone portamenti of which that earlier group was sometimes guilty, but which maintained a refined and fluid warmth, especially in the classical repertoire.
Their Haydn is a delight. Op. 76 No.4 is refined, beautifully blended and balanced. The adagio is delicately spun, the trio is a real event in their hands, warmly coloured, slightly mysterious too. The Serenade – Op.3 No.5 – is a rather more veiled, less open recording. But the elegant sweetness is still intact, the cantabile lines over pizzicati in the slow movement expressive but never cloying. Op.76 No.2 is by contrast vital; its Minuetto can be the excuse for some groups to dig into the string but the Quartetto Italiano retain purity and refinement – without perfume – and all the better for it. Maybe overall some will find them a touch too smoothed off, just a little too refined for Haydn in places, but the corporate response is wonderfully realised.
Boccherini’s Op. 39 No.3 is played with accustomed elegance but also with a sizeable sense of the work’s stature, especially the long, strong opening movement. It gives Boccherini full value – something the group was always to do. And finally there is Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, Op.74. Their famed virtues are here for those who wish to hear them. That light almost wristy French-Belgian style is certainly there allied to the warmest vocalised gifts, for voice leading, chordal weighting. There is never a coagulated sound here; those wanting heft and high-pressure Russian or American performances will doubtless be disappointed by the relative sense of refinement brought to bear. Others will welcome the performance with avidity. 
Fine sounding transfers cap a singularly pleasurable disc.
Jonathan Woolf


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