For those of you who don't know them, the Eybler Quartet are a unique group of musicians who play historically informed performances on period instruments. Their Web site describes them as coming "together in late 2004 to explore the works of the first century of the string quartet, with a healthy attention to lesser known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold Edler von Eybler. The group plays on instruments appropriate to the period of the music it performs. Violinist Julia Wedman and violist Patrick G. Jordan are members of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; violinist Aisslinn Nosky is concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society and Principal Guest Conductor of the Niagara Symphony Orchestra; Julia and Aisslinn are also members of I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble. Cellist Margaret Gay is much in demand as both a modern and period instrument player. The group brings a unique combination of talents and skills: years of collective experience as chamber musicians, technical prowess, experience in period instrument performance and an unquenchable passion for the repertoire."
As of this album, the Eybler Quartet has five albums to their credit, mostly of music by Haydn, Mozart, Vanhal, Backofen, and their namesake, the aforementioned Austrian composer and conductor Joseph Eybler (1765-1846). Here, the Eybler ensemble tackle Beethoven, and, appropriately, they do the first three (Op. 18) of his sixteen string quartets. If you like chamber music and you like Beethoven, there's plenty of both around, but to hear theses early Beethoven quartets played in something approaching what Beethoven himself might have heard (which, given his deteriorating hearing isn't saying a lot), the Eybler group is hard to beat.
The program begins with the String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, the composer's second attempt at string quartet writing (actually composing No. 3 first). Next is the even more scintillating String Quartet in G major, Op. 18, No. 2, followed by the energetic String Quartet in D major, Op. 18, No. 3. Beethoven wrote all three of them between 1798 and 1800 and published them in 1801.
Nor should one be hesitant about the Eybler's historical performances. Although the Eyblers adhere to Beethoven's tempo marks, which most traditional readings do not, these are no hell-bent-for-leather dashes to the finish line; they are well-judged, carefully considered, emotionally coherent interpretations that adhere to the composer's intentions while giving rein to the group's individual character.
So what we have in the Eybler renditions are authentic (or as close as they can get), lively, vigorous, sparkling realizations of Beethoven's scores. They move along at a zippy pace yet don't feel rushed or hurried in any way. The group's articulation is always clean, their ensemble always closely unified, the whole always beyond the particular player. The results are most enjoyable, whether in the sublime slow movements or the sprightly fast ones.
Not that it matters, but I enjoyed No. 2 best of all. Despite its hints of Haydn and Mozart, it appears to me the most inventive of Beethoven's first three quartets. Even though you may find other performances more dramatic or more Romantic, the Eyblers do it justice in every way, never sentimentalizing it or overemphasizing contrasts.
Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Ron Searles recorded the music at the Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Ontario in June and July 2015. The sound is among the better I've heard in a chamber or small-group performance. The instruments are a little close, but they are realistically placed across the sound stage, with excellent definition and delineation. What's more important, although they are a bit close up, the instruments are never hard or bright. They sound quite natural, with a shimmer and shine and a warm glow as well, the studio ambience nicely captured.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: