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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets Op. 20 Nos. 4-6, ‘Sun’ (1772)
No. 4 in D major [29.21]
No. 5 in F minor [24:38]
No. 6 in A major [20:10]
Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova (violin); Pablo Hernán Benedí (violin); Emilie Hörnlund (viola); Claire Thirion (cello))
rec. Sendesaal, Bremen, 2015
Reviewed in CD stereo
BIS BIS-2168 SACD [74:34]

I described the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s recording of the first three of Haydn’s Op. 20 quartets as idiosyncratic, beautifully expressive and deeply thoughtful. The experimentation and exploration of the last three quartets of the set seems to have inspired the Chiaroscuro to even greater independence of thought as they seek to exploit and communicate all of the composer’s density and variety of invention.

Repeats are observed but the reprises always have something new to say: a fresh detail made prominent, a dynamic contrast re-interpreted, a diminuendo even more hushed. The Quartet’s characteristic extremes, contrasts and exaggerations are present but the phrasing and articulation are never mannered; if the interpretations sometimes surprise, they always provoke reflection and interest. Most strikingly, there is a prevailing momentum, a spirit of discovery and development which drives the music – even in the slower movements – compellingly onwards.

Haydn’s experimentation begins in the very opening bars of D major quartet’s Allegro di molto – as Tom Service playfully notes in his engaging liner article – and in the five repetitions of the initial six-bar phrase the Chiaroscuro seem to be joining the composer in his search for the ‘right’ musical route, until the first violin’s rhetorical triplet outburst asserts the direction. The gut-string tone might belong to a viol consort, or even a squeeze-box, and the graininess is intensified further by dynamic swells and the cello’s pedal drone. It makes for a wonderfully refreshing contrast when whispered pianissimos explode in an energised attack and the music flowers, with vibrant, slippery triplets passing between first fiddle and cello, and the inner voices articulating their own exchanges crisply. In the restless development section, Alina Ibragimova manages to be both assertive and elegant, and the contrapuntal dialogue garners great momentum.

The Chiaroscuro’s phrasing in the statement of the theme of the D minor variations, Un poco adagio e affettuoso, which follow also creates intrigue: each antecedent and consequent feels ‘self-contained’ and the crescendo is reined in, though there is a leaning on the dissonances, before the ensuing variations bring relaxation and expansion. The scalic slithers in Pablo Hernán Benedí’s second violin variation are deliciously clean, while the colours darken for Claire Thirion’s elaborations, in which the cello is both songster and bass. The sotto voce of the final variation is veiled and vibrato-less, the rich chromaticism redolent with a melancholy that adopts a more forceful pose in unison statements but which ultimately fades into silence.

The Menuet’s gypsy flavour and rhythmic lop-sidedness knock aside the reserve of the variations, though the off-beat sforzandos are sustained rather than ‘attacked’ creating a rich ambient sound, full of joy. This brief movement is almost an ‘upbeat’ to the Presto e scherzando but the latter is a rare instance where the Chiaroscuro’s marked dynamic contrasts and idiosyncratic gestures seem misplaced, for the juxtaposition of barely-there pianissimos and weighty pronouncements of gestures that the composer surely intends as light-hearted musical nose-thumbing creates an overly sombre mood and it takes a while for the ‘playful manner’ which Haydn prescribes to find its voice.

The structural complexity, restless counterpoint and ongoing development of the F minor Quartet’s opening Moderato suit the Chiaroscuro’s resourceful imaginativeness perfectly, however. Ibragimova’s broad opening phrase begins introvertedly but blossoms freely and there is a sense of ceaseless and satisfying melodic and contrapuntal creativity – a creativity which is propelled by the gently pulsing quavers of the development, sustained by recapitulation’s continued development, and culminates in the striking coda with its extraordinary harmonies and dense textures.

The Menuet is carried along by a similar probing spirit and while the Trio slips into the tonic major the shadows do not fully lift, for the pianos are anxious, the trills taut and the silences tense. The gentle siciliano of the Adagio lilts calmly and evenly, decorated crisply and sweetly by Ibragimova’s graceful flights and flourishes, but the Fuga a 2 initiates a discharge of energy – the Chiaroscuro are a good 30 seconds faster than the London Haydn Quartet, though marginally slower than the Doric – but the strict observance of the composer’s sempre sotto voce instruction keeps the contrapuntal virtuosity on a tight rein and gives the movement a grave air.

The decorative exuberances of the Allegro di molto e scherzando which opens the final A major quartet are despatched with fanciful refinement by Ibragimova, but while one can’t but admire the purity of tone and the bracing briskness of the Chiaroscuro’s playing, I’m not sure that the they really capture the robustness of Haydn’s humour. In the Adagio, Ibragimova sings with a relaxed cantabile which, though intermittently countered by the accompaniment’s unsettling harmonic nuances, lulls the listener into a comforting easefulness. However, though the Menuet is carefree of spirit and the Trio projects an air of self-assurance, the concluding Fuga – this time a 3 but once again sempre sotto voce – is introspective, drawing the listener in and requiring them to concentrate on every detail of Haydn’s technical facility and ingenuity. The bright sound – I listened on CD format – certainly facilitates such close engagement and involvement.

Claire Seymour

Previous review: David Barker