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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets op. 20 “Sun” (1772)
Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova & Pablo Hernán Benedí (violins), Emilie Hörnlund (viola), Claire Thirion (cello))

Volume 1
Quartet 1 in E flat major [23:20]
Quartet 2 in C major [22:22]
Quartet 3 in G minor [27:52]
rec. February 2015, Sendesaal Bremen
Reviewed as 16- and 24-bit stereo downloads from eClassical
BIS BIS2158 SACD [74:34]

Volume 2
Quartet 4 in D major [29:21]
Quartet 5 in F minor [24:38]
Quartet 6 in A major [20:10]
rec. December 2015, Sendesaal Bremen
Reviewed as 16- and 24-bit stereo downloads from eClassical
BIS BIS2168 SACD [75:08]

Haydn may not have “invented” the string quartet, but by dint of volume and quality, he certainly established it as a genre. The same can also be said of the symphony and the piano trio. It is said by many, and I’m not about to disagree, that these six quartets, written in Esterházy at the age of 40, are the first great works in the genre.

Claire Seymour has reviewed the first volume, released last year, and ended her comprehensive analysis of the performances by describing the disc as “rewarding”. I concur with this assessment, but I won’t be attempting to emulate the detail she has provided. Instead, I will focus on some of the highlights, and how I, as one not especially drawn to authentic instruments, responded to these performances.

One barrier that I did have to get over with these performances was the occasionally shrill violin sound at the higher end of the frequency range. Return listenings did accustom my ear to this.

The other recording of these works in my collection is a modern instrument one by the Lindsays on ASV, now only available as Presto CDs. Direct comparison is quite startling: the styles of playing, the sound of the strings, the tuning and the tempos are so different, that it is almost as though you are listening to similar, but not identical, pieces of music. Is one approach better than the other? No, they are just different, almost complementary, and for anyone who appreciates Haydn, there should be space for both in your collection.

We can be fairly sure about how the instruments sounded in Haydn’s time, but how the performers of the time played these works is more open to conjecture. Therefore, interpretations and the quality of playing are, as always, key. Here, the Chiaroscuro Quartet, in existence since 2005 and comprising members from four different European nations, cannot be faulted. These are deeply considered readings, strongly characterised. They certainly do not allow you to tune them out into the background.

In general, they are slower in the allegros than the Lindsays, and a little quicker in the slow movements. The sound of the instruments lends a less refined feel to them; this is not Haydn with a polite veneer. That is not to say that they lack grace: let me direct you to the first movement Moderato of No. 2 to refute any thoughts of that.

The fugues that close Nos 2, 5 and 6 have a wonderful clarity, due to both the playing and the engineering, that allows the individual voices to sing through. Some of the slow movements have a real depth and intensity, almost a darkness, that I hadn’t really felt before in Haydn quartets: No. 4 is an obvious example. Indeed, I might suggest that the Chiaroscuros present us with a Haydn who shows the way to Beethoven.

There are a number of existing authentic instrument recordings of these quartets, most notably Quatuor Mosaďques (Naďve), Festetics Quartet (Arcana) and London String Quartet (Hyperion – review). I have had a brief listen to each, and would say that these new recordings are, at the very least, a match for any of them. They are probably closest in style to the Mosaďques; the Festetics struck me as a little too mannered and the Londons a little too “out there”.

Acoustically, these are beautiful recordings, providing great clarity without extraneous sounds from the performers, and giving a sheen to the string tone, which in another venue may have become too cold. I listened to these in both 16- and 24-bit stereo, though not the 24-bit surround that is also available. There is certainly an audible difference, but the “normal” CD quality version is so good that I’m not entirely convinced that it is worth the extra cost for the 24-bit download. Of course, if you are buying the SACD, you don’t have to make the choice.

The booklet notes, written by BBC presenter Tom Service, are exemplary, though I should mention that the notes for Volume 2 don‘t have the historical background of the music – that is only in Volume 1. Of course, if you only buy Volume 2, you can download the Volume 1 booklet from the eClassical website at no cost.

The more I listened to the Chiaroscuros, the more I found myself tuning into their world. I very much hope that they will return to Haydn soon.

David Barker

Previous review (Vol. 1): Claire Seymour



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