I have a couple of gripes to get out of the way. First, why are these Opus 20 Quartets not released in chronological order? (Disc One is laid out this way: #3, 2, 5; Disc Two: #1, 4, 6.) I am seeing this trend a lot, particularly from small independent labels and I simply do not understand it. I am getting used to having to do it myself, though. So I always have the remote control handy and plan on lots of up-and-down exercising and in-and-out stress incurred on my CD player’s drawer mechanism.
Next, the first CD, recorded in 2019, is transferred at an unusually low volume level, requiring a significant boost in volume to achieve a sense of presence. The second CD (2020) is closer to normal, although still on the soft side. So I had both the Volume Control and CD remotes at my fingertips just trying to get through these 6 Quartets. It really shouldn’t be this difficult. But alas, it is what it is.
I listened to these discs twice – on two different occasions, separated by several weeks. The first time through I was unmoved, proclaiming it well- played and -recorded, but ultimately nothing special. In hindsight I may have been more than a little annoyed with the layout and the effort required to listen to these marvelous works in order.
A couple weeks later, I was in the mood for some Haydn and decided to give these recordings another try (and really hoped to be motivated by them to write a review). This time I listened to each disc in its entirety, exactly as recorded. And it was rather enlightening.
Starting with Disc One, with its meek volume level, I heard playing which consistently matched it: lovely musicianship, precision of ensemble and a good dynamic range. But it wasn’t quite engaging. Cranking the volume helped get a little more life to it, but the playing still sounded rather timid. Further, tempos are steady rather than energetic and I longed for more invigoration in the fast movements. The disc ended with me feeling a little blah about it, thinking it was, frankly, a little boring.
Disc Two, on the other hand, elicited a different reaction. I heard what sounds like a different set of musicians, more youthful and spirited. It’s as if the producer gave them a little pep talk before the recording session, urging them to infuse a little more life and joy into it. And he dutifully assisted them with a little twist of the master volume knob. And things really do come to life on the second collection in a way not experienced on the first. There is more energy and incisive articulation, impressive dynamics, and truly engaging playing. And the extra touch of immediacy of the recorded perspective helped tremendously. It isn’t a big change, just enough to give them more presence. And the sense of life and vitality which results is notable.
I don’t mean to be too hard on that first disc. Taken on its own, it is well played, the sound is warm and pleasing, and it is enjoyable enough, if not at all remarkable. But it is the second disc which really distinguishes this young quartet as being rather special. And with it, I look forward to future installments in their Haydn series.