Haydn, Almeida & Beethoven: String Quartets - Protean Quartet
Eudora Records EUD-SACD-2301
Classical - Chamber
String Quartets by Haydn, Almeida and Beethoven
Protean Quartet, winner of the prestigious first prize at the 2022 York Early Music International Young Artists Competition, explores the String Quartet repertoire of the second half of the XVIII Century, from the last of the so-called “Russian Quartets”, by Franz Joseph Haydn, to Beethoven’s Op. 18 No.1, the first of his String Quartets to be published, but already a masterpiece of the repertoire. The album also includes the first recording of Juan Pedro Almeida’s Quartet op. 7 no. 1. Protean Quartet, performing on period instruments and historically informed criteria, delivers refined, vital, and highly expressive performances.
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - February 26, 2023
To get some civilized background music I sometimes put on a disc without really looking at the cover. This one happened to be lying next to my player. It took me a while to realize that it was a Haydn String Quartet I was listening to and that the four players were actually quite good. Wondering who they were, I picked up the jewel box to find out. The cover said Protean Quartet. It did not ring a bell. At that moment I realized how difficult it is to give an honest appreciation of a new disc.
Of course, there is the sound that puts extra weight in the balance for Super Audio buffs with Super Sound Systems. And that includes me. With the Spanish Eudora Label, I’ve so far never had a bad experience in that department. Then there is the music. Haydn is the inventor of the String Quartet. They are so well composed that one can hardly go wrong on condition though it is well-played. And that is what has to be judged when giving an opinion. And that, too, is where quite often the 'headache' starts.
There is a saying, ‘unknown makes unloved’. The PR guys know this, making sure that their musicians are known by, among other things, providing recordings to radio stations, plugging as it used to be called in the pop sector, participating in televised shows, and getting articles and reviews in international music magazines. And then there is the phenomenon that, for many, it is difficult to badly review musicians that are widely supposed to be the best.
To what extent can blind reviewing solve the headache? I have an old RBCD recording with highly respectable musicians playing Brahms’ Second Piano Quartet. Listening blind, the strings sound unpleasing and even unsteady (violon) to my pitch-sensitive ears. If this were all that mattered, I would not have bought it. But I did because it was Sviatoslav Richter at the piano with members of the Borodin Quartet! One cannot easily discredit them. Not even, knowing -after having read the liner notes- that it was a co-production with Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, Moscow, USSR.
Back to the Protean Quartet and my ‘accidental’ blind listening. Pondering it over, I could not think of any reason why they would not be good, or even better: Excellent! A first violon playing with zest and a strong sense of empathy. In fact, so much more focused than Mikhail Kopelman, clearly having an off day at the ‘live’ recording in the Soviet Union. Supported by a team that plays together in the best sense of the word. A perfectioned machine as any good quartet must be.
However, in an honest opinion, the tricky element is called interpretation, the ‘reading’ of the score. In that respect, views may differ, according to, it must be said, a subjective attitude toward the music in question and how it should be played. When I was young, fast was always better; more spectacular. Speed is now, at a more mature age, one of my complaints, for instance that some baroque orchestras invariably show off what they are capable of doing, turning every Allegro into Presto and using a staccato-like approach whenever they can. Many like it that way and some of these orchestral formations are admittedly very good indeed. Matter of taste. Put to the test in comparison with the Protean Quartet, this behaviour clearly is something else than their lively playing in the final movement of Haydn’s Opus 33 no. 6. In my perception this is more about sheer and unadulterated musicianship of its members than trying to show off.
Their tonal beauty and total commitment are also a driving force in the Seventh String Quartet of a composer I had never heard of before: João Pedro de Almeida Mota when born in 1744 in Portugal; Juan Pedro de Almeida y Mota when he died in 1817 in Spain. Little is known about him and the liner notes are equally modest.
The following may give some more insight “Luigi Boccherini sent the editor Ignace Pleyel several sets of quartets and trios by João Pedro de Almeyda from Madrid in July 1797 recommending its publication. Boccherini underlined the ‘style moderne’ among the ‘très bonnes choses’ he found in these works in addition to the ‘bonne distribution des parties’. In an enigmatic postscriptum to the letter, the composer pointed remarked a style that was ‘un mélange de Haydn, Pleyel et Boccherini’” (taken from an article in Accademia).
The article also gives an overview of his quartets ‘known to date’. They amount to 25 quartets, distributed in three complete collections of six quartets each (opp. 4, 6, and 7) plus two seemingly incomplete ones.
Noting Boccherini’s positive remarks about the ‘good things’ and the ‘good distribution of the parts, I find that on the basis of the reading by the Proteans, Almeida is a better composer than most of Boccharini’s writings. Rather than a ‘mélange’ between Haydn, Pleyel et Boccherini, I find its given place in between Haydn and Beethoven a better option, as it leans both ways. If the other String Quartets are of similar quality, we may be in for a new Horn of Plenty for String Quartets.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s popular Quartet Opus 18 no. 1, with which the Proteans finish their debut album, is a perfect choice in relation to the previous two. In the field of existing prominent recordings, and there are many, the four members show the quality of their educational roots, the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, Germany, and the Scola Cantorum at Basel, Switzerland. Nonetheless, rating them in a highly competitive field is not so easy.
Sometimes reviewers are searching for a reason to rate one rendition better than another. Listening with an open mind, I could not find anything wrong with the way these young musicians presented their case. On the contrary, fine historically inspired playing, keeping to musical detail and virtuoso performance, sculpting a picture pleasing to the ear, with extremely well-developed synergy whilst keeping individual competence, Javier Aguilar (1st violin), Edi Kottler (2nd violin), Ricardo Gil (viola), and Clara Rada (Cello), all playing on period instruments, deserve to be known and appreciated more widely.
At the end of the day, my question is: What is the difference between good, better, and best? Being not professionally obliged to have an opinion on all recordings I try to focus on what I believe is good, and on artists that deserve to be named. Subjectively? Yes. Honestly? In my view, Yes!
So, in conclusion, we must welcome this Quartet for its youthful and committed playing and Gonzalo Noqué for capturing this recital with the best possible sound. If there is one remark for reflection, the chosen programme may be a headache for fervent ‘complete sets’ collectors, as it covers different composers on one disc.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
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