Review by georgeflanagin August 13, 2008 (9 of 9 found this review helpful)
The king is dead -- long live the new king of recordings. This is my current "best recording I have heard of anything," replacing the Martinu Quartets on Praga that I reviewed in November of 2006. It is also a wonderfully interesting performance of the Op 20 set, and should be added to everyone's existing collection. Buy it without reservation.
These quartets are among the most important in the history of Western Classical music, so there is already plenty of information out there about the music. The liner notes make are interesting, and are far from the conventional rehash of a Wikipedia article that you find with most classical music discs.
(NB: the numbering of the quartets in this and other Haydn sets has varied over time. Below, I refer to the pieces by key to avoid misunderstanding.)
String Quartets (the ensembles, not the works of music) seem to me to come in two varieties. The Type A quartets are the ones where there are one or more soloists who are featured. The A+ example would be The Lindsays, or as I came to think of them, "Peter Cropper and the three Lindsays," whom he slave drives through performances. Then there are the Type B quartets, where the focus is on the group sound. Examples of the Bs are the Quatuor Mosaïques and the Hagen Quartet. I like both types when the music suits the performers. The Pellegrini Quartet is more of a Type B: it is one thing to call attention to the music; quite another to call attention to oneself.
The Adagio of the quartet in C is a good example of the Pellegrinis' playing. Entrances are /exactly/ together. Dynamics are arresting, and follow the score. The instruments are exactly on pitch with each other, and have a similarity of sound that suggests care in the choice of strings and bows. The Pellegrinis handle the snappier tempi with equal clarity, and this ability shines in the fugues that are the final movements of the A major and F minor quartets. I am also impressed with the rests, because Haydn liked to stop on a dime periodically, and these spaces in the flow of the sound provide the music with much of its rhythmic intensity.
The Pellegrinis do not play all the repeats, which sometimes works for reviewers and sometimes does not. /Fanfare/ magazine seems to spend a lot of time discussing inclusion and omission of repeats. Unlike a lot of people, I don't find this to be a big deal. But as a result, looking at the timings will not help much to spot the tempo; the differences in timing are not due to some revolutionary reinterpretation of "moderato."
Wow. At least for the SACD stereo layer.
I have been spending a lot of time in the big room lately. It is dark. It is cool. It is quiet. And it is summer in Virginia. This recording comes as close as any to putting four world class musicians in the room with me. The background noise level of the recording is low, and the "hall sound" of the Stadthalle Ludenscheid is free of distractions. There is no high frequency whirring that I attribute to air conditioning vent noise. The hall has a very smooth low frequency noise profile starting at about 200Hz, and rising to -55dB below full signal at 20Hz.
Of course, it is easier to achieve the feat of magic with a recording of a string quartet than it is with a recording of an orchestra; if nothing else, a string quartet is a cozy fit in my 6m x 9m room, and I can listen at levels that approximate what I would hear from a good seat in a small venue.
I wish I knew how it was done, and I wish the team that did this recording would make the information available to others. The recording seats the performers very naturally in a semi-circle that extends from somewhere just inside and behind the speakers at the left and right edges receding noticeably farther back in the middle. The balance of direct and reflected sound is just right for my system in an almost completely dead room. YMMV. I am pleased to report that the Pellegrinis keep their fingernails trimmed, and during the many passages marked "sempre sotto voce" in the score, they hardly breathe.
To do a little comparison of performance aspects, I ripped the CD layer to my iPod, and built a comparison playlist for convenience: Kodály v. Mosaïques v. Pellegrini. The CD layer of this CPO disc is brighter, enough so that I compared the two layers on a spectrum analyzer to be sure. This is not to say that the CD layer's sound is "bad" or "harsh" or "digital" sounding. The overall level of the music seems to be raised a little bit, as well. I may use the averaging feature of my spectrum analyzer and take a few photos of the spectrum, which I will put up on my website when I get around to it.
I cannot now comment on the surround layer, although I may do a little experimentation in October while I recover from neck surgery. Perhaps with my head in a vise, and marooned at home, I can find the right place to sit to make the magic happen. If I am very still ...
CPO is even reasonably priced. Go get it.
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