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Haydn quartets BIS2358
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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets op. 76
Quartet No. 4 in B flat major “Sunrise” [21:14]
Quartet No. 5 in D major [16:24]
Quartet No. 6 in E flat major [20:58]
Chiaroscuro Quartet
Rec. January 2018, Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from
BIS BIS2358 SACD [59:34]

If you have read my review of the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s Haydn op. 20 set (review) or more recently their Death and the Maiden (review), you will know that my reservations about the sound of authentic instruments have been totally disarmed by this exceptional ensemble. This release completes the op. 76 set, the first three quartets having been released earlier in 2020 but somehow missed a review on this site. Having heard it in conjunction with this release, I can say that everything I say here applies equally to the first disc, and as such, I won’t be writing a separate review.

At the end of my op. 20 review, I expressed the hope that they would return to Haydn soon. That set was recorded in 2015 – it was three years later that they returned to the studio for the op. 76 quartets, which are surely the high point of Haydn’s output in this genre. Why it took two/three years for the recordings to be released, only BIS will know, but we can be grateful that they are now available.

My comparison in the op. 20 set was the Lindsays, here it is the Kodály Quartet, whose acclaimed complete survey of the Haydn quartets was one of the early indications that Naxos was a serious entry into the classical recordings market. The observation I made in the op. 20 review about the Chiaroscuros being slower in the faster movements and faster in the slow holds here as well. Potentially, that could make for an element of sameness, but such is their skill that this is never the case. The rhythmic and dynamic details brought out ensure that your attention is kept at all times. As I said about their Death and the Maiden, this is not background music, it demands your full concentration. It has rather swept away my previous thoughts about these quartets as received from the Kodály Quartet, which now sound rather too polite.

By way of example, the opening of the Chiaroscuro’s Sunrise Quartet is taken very slowly, or at least seems to be, beginning at a very low volume. When the real start of the Allegro con spirito arrives at bar 22, the dramatic contrast is very striking. It is quite different to the approach taken by the Kodálys, where the transition is much less pronounced, in terms of dynamics. Now you will have seen that I said “or at least seems to be” with regard to the slowness adopted by the Chiaroscuros in the opening. When I took the trouble to measure the duration for each, I found to my surprise that the Chiaroscuros were less than 4 seconds slower than the Kodálys: 43.6 vs 39.8 seconds. Clearly the very quiet start, and the gradual increase in volume, totally appropriate for the sunrise it is intended to depict, creates the impression of slowness. What I also observed by use of audio editing software was the difference in volume either side of the transition adopted by each ensemble. The Chiaroscuros were almost twice as loud at the start of the fast section, compared to the end of the slow, whereas the Kodálys were actually slightly quieter. There is no doubt which is more effective. This paragraph has ended up being far more detailed than I’d originally intended, but I hope that it illustrates just how imaginative the performances on this new recording are. Somehow they manage to make Haydn sound both rustic and modern (not at the same time of course), and in doing so, give this music so much more depth.

The gut strings and the lack of vibrato make for a very clean and crisp sound, which helps delineate each of the instruments, especially the cello, which makes so much more of an impact as an independent voice than in the Kodály. The beautiful sound quality provided by the sound engineers of course helps here: it is as good as I’ve heard. I can only imagine that listening in surround sound would give you the feel of sitting in the front row of the Reitstadel concert hall where this was recorded. Richard Wigmore wrote the booklet notes – his reputation and that of the label’s for quality mean I don’t need to say anything further about them.

This exceptional ensemble formed in 2005, which seems barely feasible when you look at their photographs. Their first three releases were on the Aparté label, and this is the fifth of six on BIS, the most recent being that of the first three of Beethoven’s op. 18 set. I haven’t heard it – yet – but my colleague Michael Greenhalgh made it one of his Recordings of the Year (review). The Chiaroscuro Quartet seem to be redefining what we should expect from quartets from the late Classical and early Romantic eras.

David Barker

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