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To Be Loved
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in F, Op.18 No.1 [28:16]
Unsuk CHIN (b.1961)
ParaMetaString [20:59]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Novelletten [13:27]
Esmé Quartet
rec. 2019, Teldex Studio, Berlin
ALPHA CLASSICS 590 [62:50]

The Beethoven String Quartet receives a first-rate performance from this young, all-female quartet, making here their commercial CD debut. Their playing is full of vitality and energy, superbly balanced, intuitively phrased and impressively perceptive both stylistically and musically. Comprising four Korean players, friends since childhood, all of whom studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne where they formed the Esmé Quartet in 2016, they bring to their music-making not just that sense of close friendship and youthful enthsuiasm to the music, but a collective tone which is wonderfully rich, warm, and full of subtlety and colour. They never fight shy of taking risks (the Scherzo’s quickfire question-and-answer character is taken at a truly exhilarating pace, the dynamic contrasts vividly conveyed, and the robust Trio pounded out with a powerfully bucolic muscularity, while the Finale’s helter-skelter opening theme is every bit as hair-rising as any funfair ride) and communicate a powerful sense of sheer enjoyment. Listening to the glorious fluency and free-wheeling playing of this ensemble one can almost swallow the fanciful prose of booklet-note writer Luca Dupont-Spirio, who enthuses how, “freer, even than a pianist’s fingers, the instruments of the string quartet can do almost anything”.

Booklet photographs show the Esmés in rehearsal with Unsuk Chin, and not only is her ParaMetaString for string quartet and tape the centrepiece of this new recording, but it is also making its debut on disc. First performed in 1996 by the Kronos Quartet, the work does sound a little dated now with its mixing of pre-recorded, sampled and live strings, and its nervously fidgeting, fly-buzzing-like outer movements full of weird electronic effects which divert the ear away from the music’s underlying progress. But Chin is more than merely a composer experimenting with what was then cutting-edge technology, and the work has a musical substance which is brought out well in this immensely detailed and sharply focused performance. That is very evident in the highly effective second movement, where rich string harmonics emerge from a distortedly plucked cello.

The great warmth of the Esmé’s sound is best revealed in a highly sensitive and elegant account of Frank Bridge’s three Novelletten. They manage to transcend the usual dismissive suggestion that these are “salon pieces” by bringing moments of high drama (the most effective of which interrupts the otherwise tranquil Andante moderato), and they tiptoe with enchanting delicacy over the surprisingly adventurous harmonies of the Presto, Allegretto. Most impressive is the strength and assertiveness they inject into the opening of the Allegro vivo and their urgent pacing of the piece’s main theme.

Marc Rochester

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