Rarely heard repertoire alone does not a standout recording make. However, when it’s as beguilingly played as Reynaldo Hahn’s String Quartet no.2 is here under the fingers of the Noga Quartet, then that’s an entirely different matter.
Composed in 1939 as Hahn sheltered in the south of France from the anti-Semitic Vichy regime that forbade his music, this is a quartet that, stylistically, is equally taking refuge in the language and expression of Belle Époque Paris where Hahn had established himself as a leading composer of art song. What the Noga Quartet then brings to its many mercurial twists and turns is a warmly nostalgic, fleet-footed and tightly blended reading over which architectural and stylistic poise and precision meld with singing lines and a subtly fluid approach to metre. This approach reaps huge dividends across the slow third movement’s unfurling sighs, and equally across the swift final movement, where gauzily floating melodies that sail above filigree contrapuntal textures alternate with crisp homophonic interjections.
I’m dwelling on the Hahn because of its rarity value, but the Nogas’ Debussy is equally enjoyable, and the Ariettes Oubliées in particular. Siobhan Stagg’s clean, pure soprano voice is ravishing. Then the lucidly textured transcription of the original piano accompaniment by the Noga Quartet’s cellist, Joan Bachs, lifts what were already exquisite songs to a new level of delicate beauty, the textures and colours she’s teased out sounding spookily similar to those of Debussy’s famous String Quartet of 1914 – with which the Nogas end the disc in an equally loving and under-its-skin reading. Distinctive, intelligent and deserving of repeat listening.