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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartets, Op. 18
Quartet No. 1 in F major [28:50]
Quartet No. 2 in G major [22:59]
Quartet No. 3 in D major [24:34]
Chiaroscuro Quartet
rec. 23-26 June 2019, Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany
BIS SACD BIS-2488 [76:46]

Quartet 3 in D major is the most striking, its first movement all surprises. The opening first violin theme, a leap of a seventh, both notes savoured, before decoratively descending a fifth in running quavers. Surprise 1 is its sense of improvisation, well conveyed by Alina Ibragimova. Surprise 2 is Ibragimova seamlessly introducing a second theme determinedly enjoying life (tr. 9, 0:44). Surprise 3 is the cello, laying down a backcloth of octave leap then descent in quavers (1:03) while the upper parts’ third theme comprises a spurting ascent and triumph of hammered crotchets. Surprise 4, all instruments together in a fourth theme (1:23) of gracious chordal stability. Surprise 5, a crashing call to attention (1:34). Surprise 6: the development (4:27) casts the opening theme in D minor. Surprise 7, a crisis with a surround of writhing quavers and conclusion of ff quavers in triplets by all. Surprise 8, a sudden calm and recapitulation. Surprise 9: the coda (7:09), Ibragimova bringing gazing, mystical questioning to that opening theme, the fourth theme response relieving it to return on an even keel, comfortably displayed by second violin and cello and enthusiastically validated by Ibragimova.

I compare the Dover Quartet recorded 2018-19 (Çedille CDR 90000 198). Their opening is pleasantly musing but without the brightness, sweetness and quite as incisive rhythm as the Chiaroscuros’ sound, probably aided by their use of gut strings, instruments from or earlier than Beethoven’s time and SACD recording. The Dovers sport a merrier manner with the second theme and nifty third theme, but their fourth isn’t as smooth and lilting as the Chiaroscuros’. Their following crashing call to attention isn’t as shocking. Their development is sad, their coda maintains an elegiac tone, but the Chiaroscuros craft a more positive conclusion.

In the Andante con moto, the Chiaroscuros demonstrate the idée fixe of an opening theme progressing satisfyingly: just two largely rising sequences followed by two falling ones. The playful second theme (tr. 10, 1:05) is fastidiously pointed by Ibragimova and colleagues in turn. Soon comes an exploration of more sombre, questioning aspects of the first theme in a kind of variation (3:21) proposed by first violin and cello and cast in pale sunlight, a striking effect from the Chiaroscuros’ gut strings, by first and second violins (3:33). Contrasted is the return of the second theme’s playfulness, then a wonderfully rounded, contrapuntally rich ‘variation’ of the first theme (5:05). In the coda (6:09) the cello brings a final observation of the shadowy low, and from first violin high, boundaries of the theme. The Dovers, timing at 7:47 against the Chiaroscuros’ 6:58, supply less con moto, but a rich, autumnal sound, warm, Brahmsian in its greater density than the brighter, lighter tone of the Chiaroscuros. Where the Dovers are fervent and heartfelt, the Chiaroscuros are more ruminative, yet often bright-eyed.

The third movement is an Allegro stylish dance from the Chiaroscuros, not labelled Minuet, not a Scherzo. It’s full of nuances well caught by the Chiaroscuros: pauses, rests and a sense of searching out the light. The ‘Trio’ (tr.11, 1:35) in D minor has the second violin initiating running quavers, then the first taking them into upper register, the others treading saturninely the four-note ground bass Bach used in his Partita 2 for solo violin Ciaccona. The Dovers’ tone is more upholstered, their violins in the ‘Trio’ more dazzling, the ground bass more ominous. The Chiaroscuros create a more gossamery ambience. Their ground bass sforzandos in the ‘Trio’ are more sinister.

The Presto finale is an incisive display of rhythmic displacement, dynamic and textural contrasts, its development climax powerful (3:35). It sounds quite like 20th century music for strings. The Chiaroscuros deliver it with taste and polish, their coda both triumphant and carefree. The Dovers go for a lighter approach which, while matched by good contrast of accents and dynamics, doesn’t have the edge and tricksiness of the Chiaroscuros.

Best of the rest? In Quartet 1 in F major, the Adagio slow movement in D minor, marked affettuoso ed appassionato. From Ibragimova’s mournful first violin arioso there’s a vivid sense of exploring as well as experiencing this atmosphere of grief. Light comes with the F major second theme (tr. 2, 2:21), started by second violin and sweetened by the first, a meditation extended by the viola, second and first violin in sustained, unhurried and unharried communion by the Chiaroscuros. Pianissimo reflection then moves suddenly to f despair (4:18), the Chiaroscuros gaunt and uncompromising, but becalmed by the first violin and viola in turn dwelling on the opening four notes of the first theme, so that also subject to meditation. Come the recapitulation of the first theme, after its first phrase the first violin is assaulted by the second and viola, to which it responds with movingly plaintive eloquence. The second theme return consoles, but D major sunlight is wintrier than F major. In the coda (8:16) the first violin takes frenzied flight in hemidemisemiquavers in septuplets, Claire Thirion’s cello staunchly maintains the first theme attacked by both violins. A crashing ff discord climax releases the first violin to muse in pitying empathy.

In Quartet 2 in G major, best is the finale, Allegro molto, quasi-Presto. The Chiaroscuros point well the soft, trim first theme before arrestingly sprightly loud wake-up. Then Thirion’s very loud entry of the theme (tr. 8, 0:28), grittily delivered while Ibragimova half shrieks an equally determined counter motif (0:30), yet soon exchanges this for a delicate second theme (0:41), demurely echoed by Emilie Hörnlund’s viola, before a delightful sequence of luxuriant yawns from Ibragimova (1:05), before launching into a sylphlike dance (1:12). This provokes a bold re-entry of the first theme by second violin and viola with Ibragimova in wildly dazzling descant. The true first theme recapitulation begins quite docile, but Ibragimova decamps in showers of semiquavers. Thereafter the Chiaroscuros memorably keep the texture light, illuminating the contrapuntal ingenuity. The coda (5:09) has a nicely pointed pp start before a crescendo to the scintillating ff close.

Michael Greenhalgh

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