‘Tis too late to be wise: String quartets before the string quartet
Purcell: Fantasie; Curtain Tunes; Fairest Isle; Hornpipe; Pavan; Chacony; Locke: Curtain Tune; Suites Nos 1 & 2; Haydn: String Quartet, Op. 71 No. 2; Blow: Venus and Adonis – Act II Tune
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902313 53.15 mins
This delightful programme finds certain affinities between the Classical, Viennese string quartet and four-part viol consorts and theatrical works from 17th-century England. It’s a deliciously varied feast of airy dances, knotty Fantasias, brooding Pavans and hypnotic Chaconnes, served up alongside rollicking theatre pieces by Henry Purcell and his near contemporaries Matthew Locke and John Blow. The English works frame Haydn’s radiant D major quartet, Op. 71 No.2, penned just after the composer’s first sojourn in London in the early 1790s. During this period (which he later called the happiest of his life), Haydn played and conducted several works by ‘England’s Orpheus’, Purcell. The connections between the quartet and the consorts are more in spirit than in form, but Haydn’s playful dialogues and dancing rhythms have much in common with the teasing, capering motifs of his English predecessors.
Playing on gut-strung period instruments, the members of the international quartet Kitgut capture the music’s intimate, conversational quality, with its kaleidoscopic turns from witty banter to wistful reflection. Their playing is clean, polished, razor sharp, yet there’s nothing sterile about these performances, which bristle with energy, dynamic contrasts and dramatic gestures. The sound is lightweight and generally free of vibrato, bar fleeting touches for expressive effects. Above all, there’s a sense of playfulness and joie de vivre.
With just over 53 minutes of music, the disc is a little short in length, but its pleasures are many. The detailed recording is a shade dry yet not oppressive.