WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Angeles String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 464 650-2
These recordings of Haydn’s miraculously rich treasure-trove of string quartets were made over a period of five years, and they sound like real performances, not just studio read-throughs. They have a genuine sense of tension where needed, a deeply felt response to the profundity of Haydn’s late slow movements, and a creative approach to repeats, with something new offered the second time through.
A small disappointment is a tendency to try to make positive endings where the music should surely just disappear into thin air: the finales of the wonderful B minor Quartet, Op. 64/2, and of the Bird, Op. 33/3, are pieces which rely on deceiving the listener as to where they actually finish. They should end not with a ritardando, as here, but strictly in tempo, with bows poised in the air. The Angeles Quartet makes heavy weather, too, of some of Haydn’s serenade-like textures with pizzicato accompaniment: the trio of the minuet in Op. 76/1, and the coda of Op. 74/3 need much simpler treatment than they get here. But this is by and large an impressively successful project. Its only direct rival is the 22-disc Decca set by the Aeolian Quartet (the extra CD is occupied by the quartet version of the orchestral Seven Last Words), but those rather laborious performances, poorly recorded into the bargain, are no match for the poise and elegance of the American players. Whether one wants such a large corpus of music played by a single ensemble is another matter. Certainly, there are fine recordings of individual sets by such groups as the Amadeus Quartet (in my view incomparable, despite a cavalier attitude towards repeats), the Lindsays, and the Chilingirian and Takács Quartets; but if you’re in the market for a neatly packaged complete set, this new version is the one to go for. Misha Donat