A new Viennese string quartet – Chaos

A new Viennese string quartet – Chaos
Great name for a string quartet! It certainly got my attention (as did the repertoire) and enticed me to buy their debut recording which appears on a label new to me, Solo Musica, produced by University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna.
 
Listening to this program, the first observation I made was the somewhat curious repertoire chosen for a debut album by a group which calls themselves “Chaos”. The concert opens with Haydn’s Opus 20 #5, which is one of his more serious and slower-moving string quartets. The movement indications tell the story: Moderato; Menuet; Adagio; and a Double Fugue finale. Nothing wild here.
 
They close the concert similarly with another lyrical work, the String Quartet in Eb by Fanny Mendelssohn (Hensel). And these movement titles too are informative: Adagio; Allegretto; Romanze; and finally (!) an Allegro Molto Vivace (which doesn’t feel all that molto in this reading, actually.)
 
I make light of this merely to point out how the music contrasts so strikingly with the group’s feisty name. They don’t play feisty music, nor do they try to make it sound feisty. (More on this below.) I would have expected them to choose more vigorous – more chaotic – music to play. Perhaps that’s why they included some Ligeti in this otherwise well-mannered program.
 
I listened to the music on this program in chronological order (e.g. Haydn, then Hensel, then Ligeti) – which seemed the most logical way to approach it. As my main interest was with the Ligetti, I saved it for last, hoping the group would unleash some playing which would reflect its namesake in his Metamorphoses. But, they don’t – quite. Yes it’s more chaotic than the Haydn, but not enough. However (and this is huge) – it has character. And, as such, is a major improvement over the new recording from the Verona Quartet (on Dynamic Records) which I recently reviewed – which was timid to the point of blandness. The Chaos Quartet, on the other hand, excels at characterization and rhythm rather than shock value. I hear a playfulness – almost a charm – to it, which actually encourages the music to dance in ways I would never have expected. All of which captivated my interest.
 
However, this is Ligeti, and I need the savagery inherent in the piece. This music must be shocking – or at least startling. And it isn’t here. Dynamics are the main culprit, being a little too civilized. I specifically miss the suddenness of dynamic extremes which can be positively stunning in the very best readings (for example, in recent recordings from Quatuor Hanson [Aparte] and Quatuor Diotima [Pentatone]).
  
I don’t think it is helped by being uncomfortably sandwiched in between two very traditional Classical works – which doesn’t make much musical sense. (And, for that matter, its very inclusion on this program seems rather out of place.) Nor does it help that Solo-Musica contains the entire piece in just one track (over 21 minutes). Every other recording I know has each section individually tracked – as it should be. 

​However, I don’t mean to be too critical; I did enjoy this reading, even though it would not be a first choice for repeated listening.
 
And the same can be said for the rest of the program too. In fact, I have some reservations with the other two works as well – particularly with the Mendelssohn (Hensel), beginning with the Allegretto. It is perky enough and nicely articulate, but soon, some conspicuous affectation appears out of nowhere in the 1st violin (at the 2’30 mark), with overstated tenutos applied to the top notes of her falling arpeggiated figures – which sound awkward and quite disruptive of momentum. And there is a bit of this from all 4 players in the Romanze as well. More serious, though, comes in the final movement (again at about 2’30) when the violins play severely, starkly without vibrato, in those soaring melodic passages (in octaves) above the busy filigree in the viola and cello. While throughout the program, vibrato is nicely varied – from judicious to sparing (and often not at all) – here it is ruthlessly eliminated right where it needs it most, for no apparent musical reason. Not only does it rob this passage of its lyrical beauty, it exposes a couple moments of insecure intonation in the 1st violin as well – which is a bit troubling. And though the movement begins with an appealing sense of joyousness, it isn’t quite molto vivace enough and certainly too on-the-string for my taste.
 
The Haydn was less affected by this, but is a bit more intense and melodramatic than I prefer. (It almost sounds more like [Felix] Mendelssohn than Haydn, and perhaps that was intentional, given the companion work on the program.) They begin the opening Moderato tentatively – with a disarming simplicity and virtually no vibrato – at a tempo slightly slower than usual. It is persuasive in its way and establishes a somewhat distinguished playing style which I rather enjoyed. But the Menuet is a bit too serious, again with minimal vibrato, which may not be to everyone’s liking. The Adagio then is as sweet – and sweetly moving – as one could ever want. But the finale returns us to the seriousness of the Menuet, and could ideally have used a bit more light and dark shading.
 
Comparing this directly with the Quatuor Hanson’s recording of it on their marvelous 2-CD set of Haydn Quartets for Aparte Records (2019), reveals a lighter touch and delicate sweetness from the French group, with airier textures and a more pronounced dynamic range. The 1st movement is taken at a noticeably quicker tempo as well, which is most beneficial. The finale too is more propulsive, even though its timing is identical to the Chaos reading. The Hansons produce a more compelling, interesting and lively musical experience – appropriately so for Haydn.  
 
So while the Chaos Quartet doesn’t deliver the chaos I was hoping for (and perhaps I shouldn’t have been expecting it), this is a pleasant and enjoyable concert, imbued with a refreshing sense of spontaneity and afforded excellent recorded sound. This group doesn’t match the exalted levels of excellence heard from today’s very best new(er), young(er) string quartets, but they have much potential. This is a promising debut and I look forward to hearing more from them. 


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