Haydn: ‘Sun’ quartets Op. 20 Nos. 1-3

Chiaroscuro Quartet

If the six string quartets completed by Haydn in 1772 and subsequently published as his opus 20 were not quite as radical a development as is sometimes suggested, they do none the less a mark a notable moment in the history of the genre. The name, incidentally, is taken from an early publication featuring an ornate title page headed by a motif of the sun god Apollo.

Among many striking features of the group is the sense of experimentation, not experimentation in the sense of groping one’s way forward trying to work things out, but in a bolder way that for perhaps the first time shows Haydn revelling in the control of the difficult genre he had already done so much to develop. Thus we find him playing with form, perhaps most strikingly in the Adagio of the C-major Quartet (no.2), which is nothing less than a full blown accompanied recitative and seria aria in which the vocal part is taken by the first violin. Or what of the Affettuoso of the first of group, in E flat? Here is one of those sublime cantabile movements that Haydn made so much his own, much of it in stepwise movement redolent of hymn or chant. Yet no hymn or chant ever employed modulation to such magical effect! Or we might turn to the opening Moderato of No. 1, with its first notes suggestive of ‘Where e’re you walk’, but more importantly one of many passages in these quartets where the composer contrasts high against low sonorities, sombreness against brilliance. Many more examples – contrapuntal mastery, for instance – could easily be cited in these quartets in which Haydn constantly surprises, challenges and delights the listener in, to quote the words of the great Haydn scholar H C Robbins Landon, ‘a barely suppressed state of excitement’.

Much the same might be said of these performances by the Chiaroscuro Quartet. I suspect there are no wound strings employed by members of the ensemble, which is not afraid of the nutty rasp of bow on pure gut, something that needs the outstanding technique at the command of these players. Special praise must go to first violinist Alina Ibragimova not only for her negotiation of the at-times high-flying part, but the expressive beauty of her playing in such passages as the second half of the Poco adagio of the G-minor Quartet (No. 3), here matched fully by cellist Claire Thirion. Throughout the Chiaroscuros are equally unafraid of tempo fluctuation, unmarked ritardandi and some daring extremes of dynamic contrast. These may bother some, although to my mind such licence is rarely taken other than for expressive purpose, rather than drawing self-serving attention to the performers. In sum, for me these performances complement the marvellous invention of Haydn in their ability to make the listener hear these quartets in a fresh light. I very much hope the Chiaroscuro Quartet and BIS will bring us the remaining three quartets before too long.

Brian Robins