In listening to music, as in many other occupations, context
is crucial. What might sound unremarkable in one context stands
out in another. When recitals
are given of Haydn Quartets it is too easy to think that the incredible sophistication
of the later works means that the earlier examples can be regarded essentially
as steps on the path towards that achievement. On this disc on the other hand
the (relatively) early Haydn quartet stands out for its astonishing freedom,
imagination and ingenuity in the use of the instruments and for the composer’s
ability to extract all he can from his musical ideas. It is not that the other
works are in any way poor or uninteresting but that the Haydn is the one that
most clearly demonstrates the way in which writing for the medium would go.
To start at the beginning, however, the Sonata a Quattro
by Alessandro Scarlatti is a pleasant piece, looking back to Corelli as well as forward to the Classical style embraced much more thoroughly by Sammartini. Wisely the booklet does not suggest that either of these works represents in itself “the birth of the string quartet”, but rather that this was a gradual process in which these are milestones, possibly even key milestones. Certainly the remaining quartets on the disc, by Mozart, Boccherini and Haydn are all early examples of the quartet in the form that has continued to the present. Perhaps form is not the best word to use, as it is not so much the structure of the music as the approach to the potential of a medium which can provide four individual voices or which can combine and contrast them in an apparently infinite number of ways.
The booklet notes suggest that Boccherini’s Op. 2 are the first real examples of the genre. On the basis of the work included here I would not argue with this. It is a very individual piece in only three movements, making the most of the minor tonality, very appealing melodically and full of imaginative ideas and textures. Although the Mozart is his earliest example of the medium it too is full of ideas and of variety and is seen to its best advantage in this company. As I have already indicated however, of all the works on the disc it is the Haydn that most clearly shows the way in which the medium would develop, as well as being of great beauty and effectiveness in itself.
All of this is made strikingly apparent by the superb performances by the Casal Quartet, who thoroughly understand the idiom of these works. Much is made in the booklet of their use of four instruments all by the seventeenth century maker Jacob Stainer. Certainly the reedy sound they produce suits the music and their playing style, probably best described as historically informed. The sheer beauty of sound of the Quartet as recorded here is in itself a major reason to purchase this disc.
The booklet’s notes – in German and English – nowhere explain whether the words “Volume 1” on the cover mean that there are to be more discs of quartets of this period from the Casal or merely more discs in general from them. Whilst I would welcome either, the former would be especially desirable as they clearly have a real sympathy with and understanding of this music. This is a disc that deserves to be popular well beyond those already addicted to string quartets or to music of this period.