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Haydn: String Quartets Op. 20 Nos 1-3 - Chiaroscuro Quartet

Haydn: String Quartets Op. 20 Nos 1-3 - Chiaroscuro Quartet

BIS  BIS-2158

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Haydn: String Quartets Op. 20 Nos 1-3 "Sun"

Chiaroscuro Quartet:
Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí (violins)
Emilie Hörnlund (viola)
Claire Thirion (cello)


The six so-called ‘Sun’ quartets of Joseph Haydn’s Op.20 are often said to represent an unprecedented flowering of his string quartet writing, establishing a high watermark to which every other subsequent composer of quartets has paid homage. For all their iconic status the Op.20 quartets are not a monument of compositional rectitude or propriety, however – it is rather their flexibility, variety and unpredictability that make them so compelling. Every bar is full of a sense of musical adventure, a palpable feeling that Haydn is creating bridges between styles and ideas and forging a composite vision of four-part string writing that draws on every historical source that he knew as well as the furthest reaches of his musical imagination.

On this first volume, the first three quartets of the set are performed by the Chiaroscuro Quartet, a highly international ensemble formed in 2005 by the violinists Alina Ibragimova (Russia) and Pablo Hernán Benedí (Spain), the Swedish violist Emilie Hörnlund and cellist Claire Thirion from France. Dubbed ‘a trailblazer for the authentic performance of High Classical chamber music’ in Gramophone, the quartet plays on gut strings and its unique sound – described in The Observer as ‘a shock to the ears of the best kind’ – is admired by audiences and critics all over Europe. Appearing for the first time on BIS, the Chiaroscuro Quartet has a growing and acclaimed discography and in 2015 received Germany’s most prestigious CD award, the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - May 10, 2017

Perfection. Pure perfection. That’s what we have here, and in multi-format. Not only the playing, but also the bowing, the minute phrasing, the ‘justesse’, the musical involvement… and all the rest. String quartets come and go. As the famous ‘oldies’ fade out, the new generation is already waiting in the wings, eager to take over: Belcea, Jerusalem, Esher, Ebène….there are too many to name. Last October, The New York Times, in its praise for the Carnegie Hall appearance of the ‘Danish String Quartet’, called it the ‘golden age for young string quartets’, probably in a paraphrase of Haydn being the golden age of string quartets.

To such a select group we now can add the ‘Chiaroscuro Quartet’. Moreover, they have something on offer what not many other top string quartets have: playing gut stringed period instruments; the incarnation, one might say, of the Festetics, the Mosaiques and, not to forget: the Kuijken Family. A distinct difference in bowing and with complete absence of vibrato. Absolute pitch is ‘de rigueur'.

I must admit that I had not heard them before and had to adjust a little to what I had been used to. After a couple of sessions and comparison with the Amsterdam String Quartet, who have recorded Nos 3 and 4, supposedly embarking on a complete Haydn set, but who have in the meantime for some reason completely disappeared (their internet site, too, is gone), I’ve come to the conclusion that Tony Reif’s comment is spot on. Especially the point of the dynamics. So, I’m pleased to associate myself with his detailed view!

The Amsterdam strings, also playing on period instrument, is straight forward 100 per cent Haydn. However, I suppose we won’t hear from them anymore. So, if there is one period set to go for in high resolution, it is this one. Nos 4-6 will shortly be out as well. The other complete set, by the Pellegrini’s, is not bad. Well played, but lacking many-thing else.

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Tony Reif - April 17, 2017 (1 of 3)

Those interested Haydn on original instruments and especially anyone looking for a fresh approach to these quartets might want to check this out. Gut strings, antique bows and A=430 tell only part of the story. More traditional-minded listeners may not like what Ibragimova and her colleagues are doing here but I doubt anyone will be left indifferent. "Mannerist" might be a useful term. There are extremes of dynamics (including some delicate, very quiet playing). Very very little vibrato compared for example to the Festetics - anyone who equates "warmth" and "vibrato" may find these interpretations cold, as well as overthought, because Ibragimova especially does a lot of shaping (phrasing, some squeezed-out timbres). And yet the playing is very together - there's no feeling of a soloist standing apart. The sound in stereo is excellent, rich and rather reverberant (Sendesaal Bremen). I love the Festetics, and their RBCD sound is really good too, a little drier/closer, more intimate. Their approach is perhaps more what one would expect of an eastern European original instruments quartet - flowing, intuitive-feeling playing that makes these quartets sing. It's a bit startling to return to the Chiaroscuro and notice all the things they're doing differently. I find myself drawn to them though. These are beautifully detailed, constantly alive interpretations with no lack of heart or wit.

Comment by Mark Werlin - May 12, 2017 (2 of 3)

This is without question one of the most refreshing and well-conceived interpretations of the Op. 20 quartets I've heard, live or recorded. Let me add my enthusiastic recommendation to that of Tony Reif and Adrian. Sound quality and performance caliber of BIS chamber music SACDs are second to none. Set the playback gain to comfortably high levels in the forte passages to enjoy realistic dynamic range, accurate instrument positioning and deep soundstage. There are very quiet passages by the first violinist, Alina Ibragimova, that few other players would risk in a recording context, one of the real advantages of high-resolution audio.

Tempi compared to the Lindsays (ASV DCA 1027). No. 1 in Eb Maj.:

Lindsays
1. 10:05
2. 3:40
3. 9:22
4. 2:34

Chiarascuro
1. 9:27
2. 3:25
3. 6:40
4. 3:38

The music is allowed to speak for itself, without exaggeration, which runs counter to contemporary trends.

Bravo, Chiaroscuros, and many thanks, Bissie!

Comment by William Hecht - May 24, 2017 (3 of 3)

This is a really fine disc. While falling within the general category of HIP these are highly individualistic performances rendered in beautiful sound (mc in my case). I found myself smiling broadly at many points and hitting play again only minutes after finishing the first audition. It's makes me wish Ibragimova weren't tied to the benighted Hyperion which unceremoniously abandoned sacd years ago.