Lesser-Known Chamber Music: Harriet Smith Listens to a Collection of Discs That Rediscover Some Forgotten String Quartets and Quintets from the 18th and 19th Centuries

By Smith, Harriet | Gramophone, August 2015 | Go to article overview

Lesser-Known Chamber Music: Harriet Smith Listens to a Collection of Discs That Rediscover Some Forgotten String Quartets and Quintets from the 18th and 19th Centuries


Smith, Harriet, Gramophone


CPO is a great champion of lesser-known chamber music, intrepidly introducing us to the Raffs and Grafs of this world. And there are certainly treasures to be found, reminding us how limited our concertgoing diet can be.

The earliest music here is by Christian Ernst Graf, born nine years before Joseph Haydn and part of a hugely musical dynasty. Though born in Germany, he changed his surname to Graaf when he became Kapellmeister to William V, Prince of Orange. His quartets find the genre in a state of transition, with three of them underpinned by a harpsichord continuo, while in the remaining two the cello takes an obbligato role. The period-instrument Via Nova Quartet are best in the faster movements--the finale of Op 17 No 1, for instance--but the violins can tend towards the sour at times, not least in the arching phrases of Op 17 No 4's opening movement. The harpsichord-playing, too, is a touch dogged.

Period instruments again feature in Boccherini's Op 15 set, played by the Alea Ensemble. Here we have a very close recording, capturing every breath and bow sound. There's plenty of fervour on display but the sheer range of these works doesn't necessarily come across: the serene Andantino of the E major Quartet, for instance, doesn't occupy a sufficiently different world from the Adagio of No 5. And the various prestissimo movements would have benefited from more light and shade.

From quartets to quintets. Michael Haydn's biggest misfortune was being the younger brother of Joseph, for he was a formidably gifted composer in his own right (as Joseph himself acknowledged). His complete string quintets, variously described by the composer as Notturnos and Divertimentos, depending on the occasion for which they were intended, are a veritable cornucopia. Among the many highlights are the variation-form fourth movement of the B flat major Quintet, which is full of innovative touches, the G major Quintet's wonderfully touching Adagio affettuoso and some madcap finales (the G major again, and that of the F major). Unfortunately these performances are hampered by a very cavernous acoustic (Salzburg's Kuenburg Palace). And there's a suspicion that perhaps not all of this music has spent long enough in the repertoire of the period-instrument Salzburg Haydn Quintet to have truly settled. But the music itself is compelling.

Joachim Raff is a composer I'd previously only encountered as a composer of piano music and symphonies. …

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