The Chiaroscuro Quartet perform Haydn String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: (Franz) Joseph Haydn
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Haydn
WORKS: String Quartets, Op 20/1-3 (Sun)
PERFORMER: Chiaroscuro Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: BIS-2158 (hybrid CD/SACD)  

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Haydn’s six Op. 20 quartets were composed around his 40th birthday, and represent a huge leap forward in the cogency, richness and depth of his quartet writing. As with all masterpieces, these scores harbour more density of content, more expressive variousness than can possibly be conveyed in a single reading.

Like the much-praised Quatuor Mosaïques and the recently recorded London Haydn Quartet, the Chiaroscuro Quartet, led by Alina Ibragimova, play on gut strings with little vibrato and incline to fastish tempos. Where they surpass those earlier ‘period’ performances is in the radiant refinement of their sound, and their suave sensitivity of phrasing. One hears this immediately in easeful launch of the E flat, Op. 20 No. 1, and the intimate dying fall Ibragimova imparts to the little solo leading to the second subject. The downside of these special qualities is that these players can sometimes seem to glide over, rather than fully engage with, the gutsy give-and-take of Haydn’s more vigorous invention.

Maybe those getting to know these three works for the first time should start from the more normative readings of such outfits as the ever-reliable (and inexpensive) Kodály Quartet on Naxos. But for listeners who already know this music well, this new CD offers a fascinating range of ‘alternative’ insights and nuances.

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Bayan Northcott