WHEN Alina Ibragimova last graced York, it was with a pair of concerts presenting Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin, a "dry run" of her triumphant BBC Proms performances days later.

Two years have passed, but those readings of jaw-dropping finesse and sincerity still remain fresh in the mind. For the York Early Music Christmas Festival, she has returned as leader of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, the international period-instrument ensemble that has garnered considerable praise for its renderings of classical and Romantic repertoire.

A trilogy of hour-long concerts over the weekend provided the springboard for another exploration, with the spotlight now falling on the so-called father of the string quartet, Joseph Haydn.

Although his place among the greats is seldom questioned, he is often sidestepped in favour of the more "radical" music he paved the way for. In short, we might think that we’ve got Haydn sussed.

"Not so!" came the Chiaroscuro’s reply via this survey of the composer’s last completed set of six quartets published in 1797 (Opus 76). This was a sonic portrait of a fervent artist, his tastes eclectic, his expressive range sprawling, his music a veritable call to arms for both emotions and intellect.

The quartet’s mercurial intent became clear from the outset, their take on the "Sunrise" quartet (No. 4) suspended in glowing stillness one moment, brimming with breakneck vivacity the next.

The obvious sensitivity of the players towards one another translated into a compelling audible dialogue; from the bustling "Emperor" (No. 3) and the and the afflicted "Fifths" (No. 2), to the plaintive "Largo" (No. 5), the group conversed and cavorted their way through the composer’s multi-coloured world.

Violinist Pablo Hernán Benedí and violist Emilie Hörnlund emerged as deft musical shapeshifters while cellist Claire Thirion’s characterful playing revealed unexpected freedom within Haydn’s phrases. Ibragimova valiantly lit the way with infectious spontaneity, revelling in the rhythmic ambiguities that abound.

The Chiaroscuros note that their interpretations may differ when they commit their performances to disc this week, such are the multifaceted marvels of this set. It’s safe to predict, however, that the exhilarating high quality showcased at the NCEM will remain.

Review by Richard Powell