Haydn: ‘Sun’ Quartets op. 20 nos. 4-6

Chiaroscuro Quartet

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] reviewed this outstanding young quartet’s CD of the first three of Haydn’s innovative op 20 String Quartets some 14 months ago (, at the time expressing the hope that the set would be completed in the not too distant future. Well, here is the completion and unsurprisingly it maintains the high level of performance I noted with the earlier CD.

Reviewing the earlier disc, I drew attention to the sense one gets in the op 20 quartets of Haydn’s ever growing confidence in his handling of the medium he did so much to create; it is the string quartet that Haydn is the true father of, not the symphony. Yes, there are things here that would develop further, the most obvious being greater democracy between the four instruments. Here the first violin still has the lion’s share of the goodies that Haydn hands out, and one of the joys of the Chiaroscuro’s performances is the exquisite finesse of Alina Ibragimova’s playing, which throughout is not only technically outstanding in meeting the athletic demands of Haydn’s at times virtuoso writing, but in more lyrical writing displays a purity of line and tonal sensuality that takes on an almost feline allure. Take for example the Adagio of the A-major Quartet (No.6), this is one of those movements where Haydn takes us into the opera house, the first violin singing a nocturnal aria of love, complete with added ornamental passages and cadential fermatas, and here transformed by Ibragimova into moments of rare, unforgettable pleasure.

It would, however, be wrong and unfair to her excellent colleagues to place too great a stress on Ibragimova’s playing. The balance achieved by the quartet is excellent and nowhere more so than in the two fugal finales, those of No.5 in F minor and the A-major Quartet. Here the counterpoint is laid out with luminescent clarity, each part essayed to telling effect. And again these fugal movements demonstrate the wonderful fertility of the young Haydn’s mind, since they are tellingly contrasted. That of No. 5 is an old-fashioned, austere fugue thoroughly demonstrating how well Haydn had assimilated his lessons in counterpoint, while No. 6’s is a three-part fugue with a much more modern feel, the light textures and fleet progress reminding us that the Classical era would find new purpose to such displays of contrapuntal wizardry. Elsewhere one notes Haydn trying out new ideas as to texture, as for example the Minuetto of No. 4, an extraordinary ‘alla zingarese’ in which the earthy gypsy writing takes on almost orchestral textures. In the slow movement of the same quartet the sad little theme is treated in the first of a set of variations to disconcerting fragmentation and sparseness.

There are many other joys to experience (or discover) in this truly inventive set of quartets, just as there are in the near-flawless performances of the Chiaroscuro Quartet. Some may find the dynamic contrasts or freedom taken with such effects as rubato worrying, but, as noted with the first disc, I feel invariably that these stem from the players’ engagement with the music, not affectation. Taken together as a traversal of op. 20, this is as revelatory a pair of Haydn string quartet CDs as I know of.

Brian Robins

[ED: The video is about the first of the pair of recordings, but insightful nonetheless…]

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