The Chiaroscuro Quartet – aptly named for their attention to the light and shade of the pieces they play – was formed out of their years studying together at the Royal College of Music in London, and under their charismatic leader Alina Ibragimova they have established themselves as perhaps their generation’s leading historically informed performers of the Classical and early Romantic repertoire.

What they bring to the table is immediately apparent from the opening bars of their latest release, the first three quartets of Haydn’s Op. 76 set. The declamatory three chords announcing the first quartet sets off with a spirited allegro, which is taken at a sprightly clip, setting the scene for a gorgeously realised survey of these works, culminating in a magisterial reading of the Emperor.

This work, of course, gets its name from the second movement variations on Haydn’s hymn to Emperor Franz II, which was later filched by the Germans for their national anthem.
Ibragimova’s assuredness and authority shine through, and there is plenty of fine interplay between her and second violinist Pablo Hernan Benedi, perfectly underpinned in the lower strings by Emilie Hornlund’s viola and Claire Thirion’s cello. The four musicians play and breathe as one and they constantly surprise and delight by finding fresh and new aspects in these popular and familiar works.

Chiaroscuro inject new life into the Fifths – the second of the set – bringing a muscularity to the menuetto third movement to rival the non-gut string performances of the Doric and Jerusalem quartets. The finale of the Fifths is full of wit and elfin playfulness and the Emperor Variations are six minutes of exquisite intonation and poetic expression.
The group has previously recorded the Op. 20 “Sun” set. Presumably there will be a second volume of the Op. 76 and then it is to be hoped they might embark on the other sets in between.

In the HIP Haydn world, they contend with the excellent London Haydn Quartet on the Hyperion label, beating them to the punch in recording Haydn’s final quartets. Both ensembles are from the top shelf and it will come down to personal taste as to which you choose, but the Chiaroscuro certainly pack that extra punch.

Composer: Haydn
Works: String Quartets, Op. 76 Nos 1 to 3
Performers: Chiaroscuro Quartet
Label:  BIS BIS2348