Haydn/Berio

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COMPOSERS: Haydn/Berio
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 77; Notturno
PERFORMER: Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 55191 2 DDD
Haydn’s late quartets are, as Richard Wigmore noted in these pages last April, ‘among the marvels of civilised art’. Recent performances by the Quatuor Mosaïques (of Op. 20) and the Salomon Quartet (of Op. 33) have demonstrated that Haydn’s earlier quartets can sound pretty marvellous too, a sentiment confirmed here by the Quatuor Festetics’s excellent accounts of Op. 17.

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If the six quartets of Op. 17 show Haydn still in transition towards a fuller realisation of the genre’s possibilities, they also contain some glorious music. The C minor (No. 4) is the best known, thanks to its bold textures and contrapuntal deftness, but the vibrant E major (No. 1) and the E flat major (No. 3), with its haunting Adagio, are hardly less beguiling. The Quatuor Festetics plays with great elegance and clarity. The players do seem to tread a little too carefully at times, but overall, these are illuminating performances, superbly recorded.

The Royal Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble disc features two of Haydn’s more popular quartets, plus the lightweight divertimento, Op. 1/1. The performances are competent but unexceptional, with few signs of any special empathy for the music. There are better bargain-price versions of these quartets, notably by the Kodály Quartet on Naxos, whose measured performances of Op. 76 I also prefer to those by the Giovane Quartetto Italiano. The latter’s edgy, volatile playing has its moments, but tends to dissipate the music’s shape and flow, to particularly damaging effect in the slow movements.

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The Alban Berg Quartet moves impressively through the two autumnal quartets of Op. 77. Disciplined and compact, their playing is quietly efficient yet somewhat unsmiling. (The Quatuor Mosaïques, on Astrée, finds more expressive colour and joie de vivre in these magnificent works.) The Alban Berg Quartet disc also includes its live world premiere recording of Berio’s Notturno (Quartet No. 3), a desolate, fragmentary meditation on evil and silence that sits oddly with the Haydn. Graham Lock