Shifting into reverse to head back two hundred years takes a little extra effort. Sometimes it’s good to make an about face, but it also takes something out of the ordinary to trigger the effort. That’s what the string quartets of Luigi Cherubini (Ke-roo-BEE-nee) have done.

On the surface Cherubini’s quartets are straight ahead classical period music that adhere to the ideals of the age of reason. The guiding tenants of the age were symmetry, structure, discipline, order, form, logic. Music and all the arts of the period followed suit, rejecting the frivolous embellishment of the Baroque, thus establishing a new, more restrained, intellectual approach. But these confining attitudes didn’t choke Cherubini’s emotions or his imagination. He mastered the rational framework of classical music by molding it to his vision, then turned its restrictions around to instinctual advantage. Willingly accepting and consciously applying limitations can be a powerful tool in the creative process. Very few artists unearth this superficially counterintuitive, and consequently, rare technique. Cherubini shaped a cognitive spade out of the constraints of classicism to dig into his own creative depths. The way of any artist who makes the grade is to take the style of the day, put it under a stress-test, then push it to the breaking point—not to smash it entirely—just enough to crack the edges, to find the limit within the limits.

Cherubini lived from 1760 to 1842, a contemporary of Mozart and Beethoven, he was well known and highly respected in his time, but over the subsequent centuries the names Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven would come to overshadow him, regretfully. His quartets, composed between 1814-1837, are all from his later years. All show personal as well as stylistic maturity that moves towards Romanticism. His quartets have a spirit of freedom and creative innovation that clearly exceeds Mozart and challenges Beethoven’s long held seat as the King of Breaking Bounds. Each quartet brings new surprises. The 2nd and 3rd quartets are to me particularly inviting. Filled with bravado, contrasts and stark transitions, they keep my ears at attention. Yet, it’s not easy choosing favorites. On another day, in another mood, another one may become my favorite.

The recordings are a box set of all six quartets, performed by HAUSMUSIK London on the CPO label. On the technical side, the performances are just shy of impeccable, but on the interpretive side they radiate. HAUSMUSIK London’s sense of rhythm, their subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, rubato is executed with such precision it seems like the music is taking control of the performers—as if there’s a single mind manipulating all four musicians. This kind of synchrony comes from years of playing together, but also from an innate sensitivity to each other as their individuality dissolves into the group and the music takes command. It’s a strange and amazing phenomenon to hear.

The recordings bring more good news. Through skillful engineering they present an excellent balance between reverberation and presence that lends us a sense of space while maintaining the intimacy expected of chamber music. We can hear the musicians’ breathing, their fingers on the strings in precisely the right amount. They also exhibit the most well defined imaging of any string quartet recordings I’ve heard. Frequently quartet recordings have a lopsided soundstage, the violins to the far left and the viola and cello seemingly sitting on top of each other in the center. But these recordings clearly and evenly space each performer—1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cello—from left to right. Add in the lively spiritedness of Cherubini’s music with the energy of HAUSMUSIK London and you have an outstanding musical experience with a refreshing view of classicism.

Music : A ║ Performance : A- ║ Recording : A+ ║ HAUSMUSIK London, Luigi Cherubini, Complete String Quartets, CPO 2003

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