"Not All Cats Are Grey." And certainly not all string quartets are as incredible as the Quatuor Hanson. Wow.
Yes you read that headline right...Wow. And that's after listening to this disc three times already. I hardly ever do that. I'm usually just not interested enough in what I've heard to listen to it again so soon, and even more rarely so engrossed, or moved, by something that I simply can't get enough of it. Both circumstances apply to this completely transfixing album from a group new to me: Quatuor Hanson, on the Aparte label. Their playing is simply out of this world. And the recorded sound is as good as it gets.
Readers of this blog know I have my favorite string quartets. I write about them all the time and love listening to, and reviewing, their recordings. A new group has to be sensational to even merit consideration for being spoken of in the same breath as those. Well, I can add one more string quartet to that distinguished list after listening to this innovative, adventurous, imaginative and hugely difficult program of music by Ligeti, Bartok and Dutilluex.
The booklet is exceptionally informative about the music and how Quatuor Hanson approached it, but meager with details about the group and its members. Well...meager isn't even the right word; "mum" is more accurate. There's not a word about them. But they are pictured, and they all appear to be very young. But they play like masters. Not only technically, but their depth of musicianship and musical insight is simply astounding. And with their youth, they bring boundless invigoration, musical involvement and youthful jubilance not often heard in recorded string quartet music. I can find only one other recording from them, a 2-disc set of 6 Haydn Quartets (sadly available only via download at this point in time).
I started with the Bartok 2nd. The Hansons bring a musical sensibility and melodious involvement to it that other recordings seem to lack, leaving me unconvinced. The Hansons play with such variety of color, tonal beauty and musical understanding, it really makes the piece sound orchestral in its scoring, relating it more closely than ever to the orchestral Bartok I love. I hear so much of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and even hints of his Concerto for Orchestra, that I found myself loving this quartet. (I don't actually love any of his six Quartets; I would say I admire them - at best. Until now.) This one is played with such love it is revealed to be among Bartok's finest. The contrasts between the 3 movements are striking, particularly how the opening Moderato is distinctly different from the closing Lento. The tempo relationship is masterfully considered. And the second movement has a fervent restlessness to it which is riveting.
Much of the same applies to the Ligeti 1st (Metamorphoses). I usually lose interest in this piece long before it's over. But the Hansons bring such musical involvement and endless variety to it that it grips the listener into rapt attention, as it becomes a completely new and thoroughly moving experience. (I was surprised how much it reminds me of the Dutilluex in its orchestration, and often of Bartok in its thematic material.) Oh, don't get me wrong. The Hansons don't polish off the rough edges or mellow it out to make it sweeter than it should be. It's definitely all there, and their playing of it is almost beyond what I can describe. In a word, it is stunning. The sheer energy and incisive articulation are simply phenomenal. The Hansons make me want to know this piece better and I can't stop listening to it.
Finally, their Dutilluex is simply intoxicating. It transports us to otherworldly dimensions. And elevates this group to stratospheric heights of accomplishment. The atmosphere they create, with every glistening harmonic, or mysterious glissando, or unusual bow effect, is indescribable - as if hearing it for the very first time. For example, just listen to the suddenness of dynamic contrasts, drawing one into the performance. You absolutely must hear them play this piece. I was in awe of their playing, certainly, but I was in awe of the music. It is incredible.
Coincidentally, this is the second CD I've encountered just this month with a similar "night" theme, the other being 'round midnight, from Quatuor Ebene for Warner/Erato (see my review elsewhere on this blog). And the contrast between the two could not be more striking. Both groups play the Dutilleux and the differences are simply astonishing. Warner (disguised as "Erato") projects the Ebene boldly out into the room in a loud, upfront, one-dimensional way, demanding we pay attention to them. While Aparte invites us to come inside and listen to Quatuor Hanson captivate us with an overwhelmingly immersive musical experience. Warner pays no attention whatever to the "night" theme and instead multi-mics the Ebene into a rather cold display of technical perfection, with every thread dissected and exposed, devoid of atmosphere and enchantment. The piece is rendered just notes on the page. For the Hansons, Aparte provides an otherworldly musical experience like no other, as if right out of a dream, where atmosphere, enchantment and fascination are primary achievements. I don't think I have to actually tell you which one I prefer. I'll just say, as good as the Ebene are, they don't begin to understand this work as do the Hansons. And Warner's recording engineers just don't have a clue; or, more likely, simply don't care.
Put simply, the playing of Quatuor Hanson is magnificent - some of the most musically insightful and imaginative I've ever heard from a string quartet. And compared to my current list of favorites, that's really saying something! The range of color and dynamics they produce is simply awesome. And there is no denying their technical accomplishment is equally dazzling. What makes them so special to me, though, is how utterly natural they are at making music. Nothing is forced; nothing is ostentatious; nothing is overblown; never do they go out of their way to make a point. It's all just natural, heartfelt musicianship, with a depth of expression which belies their youth. It's also the energy, and their ability to bring new life to this music - the wonderment of hearing it all for the first time - which bring profound musical enrichment to the listener.
Fortunately, they have the benefit of superlative recorded sound - utterly natural in perspective and tonal beauty within the perfect acoustic, warmly atmospheric without being too reverberant. Aparte is a label I will seek out in the future. This is one fabulous disc in every conceivable way.