This disc of the first-ever recordings of the String Quartets Op. 1 Nos.1-3 by Józef Elsner (1769-1854) is not the first disc of Elsner string quartets, but it marks the first time I took note of a name I’ll now never forget. They are such good works, much in the vein of Haydn, that I fell in love right away. But could they really be that good? Perhaps I was getting carried away. Yet on the tenth–or fifteenth–hearing they still hold up. These are varied, mature classical string quartets of the first order, not second tier also-rans.
Seeing that these are world premiere recordings, this is the part where reviewers like to say that they couldn’t imagine the performances bettered. This sort of thing suggests a lack of imagination even at the best of times. In this case, it would be a brazen lie. Listening to these quartets with a chamber-music veteran violist friend, we agreed that nice though the music was, you could tell it wasn’t Haydn. Yet ultimately the issue here for listeners has less to do with the music’s resemblance to Haydn and more to do with how this wonderful music is hampered by a few performance factors.
First, the general lack of competition and familiarity with the works (ours and perhaps the performers’) gives less urgency and edge to the music than you’d likely get if there was a vigorous performance and interpretation history of Elsner quartets. Secondly, the performance by the HIP string quartet in question occasionally is hampered by movements where the first violin has intonation issues, the high notes sound squeezed, quick turns of phrases or repeated notes sound effortful, and the period instruments overall sound a little more brittle than what we’ve gotten used to from the early music movement over the last two decades. The inner voices could be more lively here and there, the violins slightly less muted and nasal. At one point, even the viola catches the bug. Only the cello does a terrific job throughout. The Quatuor Mosaïques these four musicians ain’t.
If this had to be said, don’t let that discourage you from discovering these works. Long stretches of music are executed very well, and even among the group’s least felicitous moments the spirit of the music is never dampened. It’s still a very happy discovery–and once you’ve listened to Elsner you will, as do I, hope for many more recordings of his music to follow.