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Reviews: Haydn, Solberg, Grieg: String Quartets - Engegård Quartet

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Reviews: 3

Site review by Castor July 16, 2008
Performance:   Sonics:    
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Site review by Polly Nomial August 22, 2008
Performance:   Sonics:  
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Review by Beagle July 22, 2008 (12 of 12 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
The 2L label certainly has its mojo, DXD, working for it – but it also has freakishly good talents on-tap. If every SACD were this good I’d have to mortgage the farm. With most discs I can’t remember whether I liked them or not – I liked this disc instantly and so much so that I can’t wait to sing its praises. To echo Castor, "This beguiling disc certainly deserves a top recommendation".

THE SOUND
The SACD medium provides only the possibility for beautiful recorded music; most recordings fall short of this potential but some (IsoMike, DXD, Water Lily) continuously amaze and exceed expectations. DXD proves itself again here; the proof is in the pudding and the pudding is delightfully musical, fantastically clear instrument sound. String Quartets form a severe test, since the high strings are easily over-emphatic and even harsh, while the cello may be blurred and the viola virtually inaudible. On this disc the violins are distinct but delightfully sweet, the cello up-front but mellow and the viola miraculously present and accounted for. Recording a quartet, unlike a symphony-of-a-thousand, demands that each instrument be distinct-- and DXD delivers.

THE MUSICIANSHIP
Thanks to the geniuses of 2L, on the other side of their impressive technology lies impressive talent. The Engegårdkvartetten, like the FSQ, is a real discovery. Its primarius and eponymous founder, Arvid Engegård, led the excellent Orlando Quartet* from 1995 to 1999. I am very glad that Juliet Jopling abandoned her career in (shudder!) Economics, to return to her first love, viola. Atle Sponberg, concertmaster of the NRO, graciously plays second fiddle. ‘Gusse’ Gustafsson, the old man here, has thirteen years as cellist of the New Helsinki Quartet – the rest are frightfully young (or else I am frightfully old…). Their music-making, furious and subtle by turns and amazingly ‘inside’ the idiom, has given me actual goose-bumps of delight.

THE MUSIC
An amazing performance on an amazing recording does more than just ‘bring the music home’ – at least here it does something unexpected. Except for the Solberg piece, I thought I knew this music, certainly the Haydn** and especially the Grieg***. But it took this recording to shove my nose in something which now amuses me greatly about Haydn’s nameless Erdödy-Quartetten Nr 5. This is the set which contains The Fifths-, The Emperor- and the Sunrise-Quartet. If you have a bit of musical imagination, I think you can hear a pre-echo in Nr 5 of Sullivan’s “Tit-Willow” tune – G&S’s mock-seriousity suits joker Joe Haydn I think. I have privately dubbed it "The Tit-Willow Quartet".

Solberg's Quartet in B minor, written in 1945 at the age of 31 (30 is the modal age for writing a quartet), strikes me as accomplished but not memorable. It makes good use of the quartet resources and is idiomatically Norwegian, but it fails to acquire an inner life of its own.

Quite oppositely, the Grieg Op. 27 has titanic life – I’ve never heard it rendered so convincingly as here; the Engegårdkvartetten have shoved it up to a higher level in my personal canonical list, i.e. Grieg wrote a better quartet than I had realised, judging from previous recordings (somehow, I’ve never heard this live). Opus 27 is Grieg’s First or Second Quartet, depending on who is doing the counting: he wrote a D minor quartet (now lost) and also a fugue for quartet at age 18. He was 34 when he finished this G minor quartet, but he left a further quartet in F major unfinished when he died at 64. Much is usually made of Grieg’s Norwegian nationalism, but as he wrote to a friend “I will try to … write from the heart, whether it turns out to be Norwegian or Chinese.”. Like quartets by the other ‘nationalist’ composers, Smetana and Janácek, Grieg’s is intensely autobiographical, not folklorish.
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* Now reconstituted as the Párkányi Quartet.
** The Engegårds make quick work of these four movements, 17:37 versus 20:25 for the Lindsays and 20:26 for the Kodály -- were repeats omitted?
*** The pace on the Grieg is fast but not notably so, 33:10 versus 36:51 for Quatuor Arthur-LeBlanc.

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