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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets Op.20 Nos.1-3 ‘Sun’ (1772)
No.1 in E flat major [23.20]
No.2 in C major [22:22]
No.3 in G minor [27:52]
Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova (violin); Pablo Hernán Benedí (violin); Emilie Hörnlund (viola); Claire Thirion (cello))
rec. Sendesaal, Bremen, February 2015
BIS BIS-2158 SACD [74:34]

Formed in 2005, the Chiaroscuro Quartet comprises violinists Alina Ibragimova (from Russia) and Pablo Hernán Benedí (from Spain), the Swedish violist Emilie Hörnlund and cellist Claire Thirion from France. Their discography includes music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn, and in 2015 they were the recipients of Germany’s prestigious Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik for their recording of Mozart’s Quartet in D minor K.421 and Mendelssohn’s second string quartet in A minor Op.13. Now the Chiaroscuro have turned to Haydn, specifically the first three of the six Op.20 quartets which the composer wrote in 1772.

There are many esteemed recordings of the Op.20 quartets from which to choose; and, recent additions to the available selection have included the 2015 recording by the Doric Quartet and the London Haydn Quartet’s 2011 release. So, one might wonder what the pan-European Chiaroscuro Quartet have to say, that has not already been said?

Well, first, the players’ use of historical bows and gut strings results in a soft-edged, light-weight sound which unifies Haydn’s ever-evolving, busy contrapuntal conversations. This is a ‘dialogue’ which is quite different to the dramatic, incisive, individualised voices that we more regularly hear today. But, while Gramophone may have described the ensemble as “a trailblazer for the authentic performance of High Classical chamber music”, a light sound, minimal rubato and the occasional rasp of the bow on gut, do not guarantee ‘historically informed authenticity’ – or signal it as an intent. Indeed, the Chiaroscuro’s approach is idiosyncratic with regard to dynamics, tempi and phrasing; they make the music intimate and personal, revealing Haydn’s ‘romanticism’.

The Op.20 quartets are appropriately nicknamed. While the name was derived from the sun motif that appeared on the title page of the second edition, the quartets are conventionally judged to mark the real ‘dawning’ of the string quartet form: a dialogue between four equal voices, which replaced the ‘violin concerto’ relationship between the first fiddle and ‘accompanying’ parts which had predominated previously. Of course, artistic evolution and change does not usually involve seismic shifts of such a definitive nature. And, just as Haydn’s Op.9 and Op.17 sets, written in the preceding few years, are exploratory and diverse, so the Op.20 set are notable for their variety and contrasts of form. As Tom Service puts it in his estimable liner notes, “For all their iconic status within the classical style, these works are not a monument of compositional rectitude or propriety. Just the opposite: it’s their flexibility, variety, unpredictability and sense of experimentation that make them so compelling”.

It is this diversity which seems to suit the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s concern to explore and experiment. Listening to the first two quartets, I initially found the tempos somewhat brisk – and a comparison with the aforementioned Doric and London Haydn Quartets confirms that the Chiaroscuro are a little swifter in the Eb major and C major quartets than the Doric Quartet, and considerably faster than the London Haydn Quartet in both.

The Allegro moderato of the Eb quartet is sweet-toned and lyrical, and cellist Thirion rises warmly from the depths to enjoy her occasional moments of melodic primacy. But, despite their reputation, the Op.20 quartets do not entirely eradicate the supremacy of the first violin, and Ibragimova leads assertively, often introducing a rhetorical rubato which the other players do not imitate. There is sometimes a slight ‘edge’ to her E-string sound but that may be a result of the bright recording sound – the disc plays on both SACD and CD players (I listened on the latter). Amid the relaxed mellifluousness there are sudden contrasts of dynamic and injections of drama: as, for example, in the development section, where suspensions in the inner voices are embraced by vigorous, even abrasive, leaping arpeggio motifs in the upper and lower voices. When the false reprise near the start of the section veers into continuous development, the Chiaroscuro push the music forcefully forward.

Robust dotted rhythms characterise the Menuet’s theme, but the players delight in withdrawing the sound and introducing exaggerated ritenutos; in the Trio they emphasise the sinuousness of the chromatic line with swells and sways that some might not favour. The Affetuoso flows beguilingly as the homophonic lines unfold in an even cantabile underpinned by the resonant cello, but here, too, there are arresting details, unexpected contrasts and decorative flourishes – the players seem to squeeze every ounce of expression from Haydn’s dissonant suspensions and appoggiaturas. The concluding Presto tumbles forth with scarcely a breath and flies light-footedly forward, though the music retains a strong melodic character. The modulation to the minor key in the second part of the movement triggers real excitement: the busy textures buzz with energy and the upper strings’ syncopations above the cello pedal are animatedly propulsive. Here, again, there are unexpected minutiae: Ibragimova separates the cross-bar tie into two sharply articulated separate up-bow quavers, then shrinks from such boldness into a sudden pianissimo.

The C Major Moderato is blithe of spirit, but a slightly more ‘moderate’ tempo would have given the decorative embellishments and the rapid triplet semiquaver motifs more space to speak with grace. Thirion again takes a dominant role, both as a high melodic voice and as a robust foundation. The contrapuntal invention of the development section is vigorous and lucid, but as the elaboration progresses the music at times assumes an improvisatory air – where will Haydn take us next? – which serves to make the recapitulation reassuring, though the additional ornamentation ensures that the music never settles into complacency. The final diminuendo fades cheekily to the barest whisper.

The octave unison statement at the start of the minor-key Adagio issues a formidable challenge to the listener, and the precision of the four players’ incisive trills is no less impressive. Ibragimova treats the violin’s full-blown flights with the freedom of a cadenza. The return of the cello’s theme is strikingly gentle and with the arrival of the violin’s Eb major cantabile melody that the sombre storminess seems subdued – but not for long, and the Chiaroscuro take every opportunity to indulge in operatic theatricality. Haydn’s Menuet is made even more quirky than the composer perhaps intended, through extremes of dynamic contrast and startling accents. The thematic repetitions of the fugal Finale, by their very nature, restore equilibrium and unity.

The third quartet of the set, in G minor, begin in high-spirited fashion. A wealth of mischievous manipulations of the details and pulse make the Allegro con spirito surprisingly and affectionately playful, despite the minor tonality – though the Chiaroscuro do not neglect to convey the grand scale of the movement. After a dark-hued Menuet, Ibragimova’s quavers dance lightly over the lower strings’ warm, sustained lines in the Trio. The tiniest, simplest of motifs propels the Finale forward through diverse dramas. Before that we have a wonderful Poco Adagio, in the tonic major, which brings light and air, and finds the players in unhurried, reflective mode. Ibragimova effortlessly negotiates Haydn’s high-wire with a beautiful expressiveness, which is matched by the cello’s contemplative meanderings. The texture is wonderfully translucent as Tirion’s melody carries her to the instrument’s highest realms. The gentle figuration and motivic interplay in the middle voices aids the movement’s persuasive flow: this is deeply thoughtful playing – the highlight of a rewarding disc.
Claire Seymour