String Quartets, Op.76 – No.1 in G; No.2 in D-minor (Fifths); No.3 in C (Emperor)
Chiaroscuro Quartet – Alina Ibragimova & Pablo Hernán Benedí (violins), Emilie Hörnlund (viola) & Claire Thirion (cello)
Recorded December 2017 at the Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: BIS BIS-2348 [SACD]
Duration: 71 minutes
The multi-national Chiaroscuro Quartet (from Russia, Spain, Sweden and France) has a memorably individual style. These musicians approach Haydn with great expressiveness involving skilful use of rubato which enlightens the significance of the melodies without impeding the progress of the music. I first experienced this in their memorable reading of the ‘Fifths’ Quartet in concert seven years ago and their perceptive understanding of the music is equally evident in this recording.
Each theme finds the allotted instrument positive in true chamber music style with its companions subtly yielding to its solo role. The tender shaping of a melodic idea sometimes involves fractional urging and relaxing of tempo yet the basic pulse is not disturbed. All goes well in this work with skilfully hushed playing in the Andante o più tosto allegretto, yet in the Minuet these sensitive shadings of subsidiary ideas sometimes make the return of the major themes seem to hurry despite the admirable adherence to basic pulse. In the Finale there is a delightful stray note at the end of the initial melodic phrase – some performers enjoy exaggerating it with an introductory glissando, a convincing effect but on its three appearances Alina Ibragimova points it in a different, slightly eccentric, way each time. The chosen tempo is fast but effective.
In the G-major Quartet the third movement gives cause for concern. Haydn entitles it Menuetto but because he wished it to be played quickly he gives the tempo marking Presto. Unfortunately some ensemble use this as an opportunity to take the bit between their teeth and this is so with the Chiaroscuro for whose members Presto means madly fast. As a result the movement no longer has the nature of a Minuet. Additionally it makes it virtually impossible to play the Trio at the same speed although it is also covered by the Presto marking and here the players are forced to take it much more slowly. Given moderation, it is possible to adopt an initial tempo that accommodates both sections as Alexander Schneider found many years ago. The rapidity of the Finale is surprising and causes some of the inner detail to be swept aside. The result is exciting but there is a sense of hurry.
This reading of the ‘Emperor’ Quartet is swift in general but subtly shaped. The assertive opening movement features wide dynamics and the essential second repeat is observed. This must never be omitted because Haydn requires the final seventeen bars to be played faster but only on the second time – a marvellous surprise effect. The gentle quietness of the playing in the Variations together with the eloquent shaping of the theme – the famous ‘Emperor’s Hymn’ – is a credit to the musicians. The urgent approach to the Minuet does push the music and some bold entries arrive rather more promptly than expected but the sturdiness of the Finale is admirable.