Haydn

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Album title:
Haydn
Composer(s):
(Franz) Joseph Haydn
Works:
‘Sun’ Quartets, Op. 20 Nos 4-6
Performer:
Chiaroscuro Quartet
Label:
BIS
Catalogue Number:
BIS-2168 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Performance:
starstarstarstarstar
Recording:
starstarstarstarstar
5
Reviewer:
BBC Music Magazine
Haydn

Haydn’s Op. 20 ‘Sun’ string quartets form a trove of ingenuity, a laboratory where Baroque and Classical tropes are subject to radical experiment, almost bar by bar. Delight is the key to successful performance, and in this recording the Chiaroscuro Quartet revel in the composer’s play of ideas. This, their second recording for BIS (Vol. 1 was reviewed in November 2016), features Nos 5 & 6 from the Op. 20 set, actually written before Nos 1-3. They show Haydn’s adoption of older forms – both have enriched fugal finales, the sixth an ingenious three-part example which turns the theme on its head. 

First violinist Alina Ibragimova leads this merry scherzando work with dazzling delicacy, but it was the interpretation of No. 5 that blind-sided me on a first listening. Convention dictates a certain agitation in the opening Moderato Allegro before sunshine breaks through. Here we are plunged into tragedy, a sense of devastation so profound that when the major key arrives, it acquires Beethovenian seriousness. This is a deeply absorbing reading, and can make other interpretations seem almost trite. It’s partly the sheer timbral and dynamic range on offer: each note is given its resonance, keening dissonances fully realised, high lines lent a fine-spun, fragile beauty while echoing phrases are reduced to mere breaths. While even the scherzo is tear-streaked, the Sicilienne offers consolation, and a moment for Ibragimova to improvise with wild fantasy, musing sweetness and sense of bold discovery: rarely has her Bellosio violin sounded so lavish, complemented by the flame-like timbre of second violinist Pablo Hernán Benedí’s Amati. 

In the fugal finale, we’re transported to the intimate world of the viol consort. The pushy, vibrated notes of other quartets (the Quatuor Mosaïques, on Astrée, excepted) feel self-important and over-emphatic in comparison: this fugue barely touches the ground. 

They breathe new life into graceful No. 4, a nest of traps and ambiguities: the antique variations are confidingly quiet, cellist Claire Thirion spinning silken poetry, while there’s rustic abandon in the Presto and gypsy minuet, with its cheerful collision of accents.

I’ve always enjoyed the Hagen Quartet’s robustly cheerful recording (on DG) of No. 6; here, the latter’s briskness is replaced by a wily gentleness. In the ever-so-slightly ridiculous Adagio, Ibragimova unleashes arabesques of filigree tracery with breathtaking artistry but a sly charm which suggests she might just be joking. In fact, you can sense a smile in the playing of all the performers in this quartet, particularly in the gawky trio, with its coarse, squeeze-box melody, apparently tuned by the damp air of the swamp on which the Esterházy palace, where Haydn worked, was built. Highly recommended.

Helen Wallace

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