July 20, 2020. The last complete set of string quartets that Josef Haydn composed, a set of six, Op. 76, are among his most ambitious chamber works, deviating from their predecessors in their near-continual exchange of motifs between instruments.
There is much to like in the new BIS release of the first three quartets in the series, performed by the Chiaroscuro Quartet on gut strings, without vibrato, and with plenty of elegance and subtlety of timing.
Comprising violinists Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí, violist Emilie Hörnlund, and cellist Claire Thirion – from Russia, Spain, Sweden, and France respectively – the Chiaroscuro plays up to its name, with attention to the shaping of light and shade, attuned to this music’s disruptive, destabilizing aspects.
The most famous of the six Op. 76 quartets is No. 3, "Emperor," because of its fine second movement, a set of variations on Haydn's own Emperor's Hymn, which Haydn composed to be Austria's National Hymn, and that is now the German National Anthem. It is given a straightforward reading by the Chairoscuro, without pre-Romantic embellishment.
There are many rewards elsewhere on this disk. Pauses are unpredictably timed, the approach to the outer movements is more quizzical than hard-driven, and the ebb and flow of harmonic tension is imaginatively wrought.
One cannot help but be reminded of Goethe’s comment about these quartets: that we are listening in on "a stimulating conversation between four intelligent people.”
The Chiaroscuro Quartet makes a compelling case for stimulating conversation in these attentive and intelligent performances. Watch this documentary of Chiaroscuro Quartet from 2016 when they released their Haydn "Sun Quartets" album.