Notes and Editorial Reviews
London Haydn Qrt
HYPERION 67611 (2 CDs: 133: 03)
These six pieces are the beginnings of Haydn’s inimitable series of string quartets; the earlier quartets, delightful though they are, were generally light-hearted, five-movement serenades. After writing innumerable Baryton Trios (baryton, viola, cello) for his insatiable patron to play, Haydn in 1769 settled on four movements and four strings. The first four of these quartets follow a consistent scheme:
an opening Moderato, a Menuet and Trio, a slow movement, and a Presto finale (in one case, Allegro di molto). He had written many symphonies with Allegro openings, but these Moderatos hark back to the Baryton trios rather than forward to the rest of the string quartets. The final two quartets here open with a Poco adagio and then with a Presto; Haydn was experimenting, as he so often did. By the time he reached the Allegro finale of Quartet No. 6, he had found what he was looking for; that movement would grace any of his later quartets. The content in op. 9 is quite serious, with little humor or even sparkle until we reach the finales; even the Menuets are drab by Haydn standards, without much feeling of the dance. I don’t mean to downplay the quality of the music, which is eminently satisfying, much of it moving.
The London Haydn Quartet plays lovely period instruments in a gentle manner, emphasizing the beauty of the music. My choice for these six quartets has been Quatuor Festetics—also on period instruments—on the difficult-to-find, aptly named Arcana label. Both ensembles are excellent, but there are notable differences. The Festetics plays the Moderatos more crisply, with sharper attacks, and it chooses generally brisker tempos than the Londoners (although not in the Prestos). One gets the impression that it is looking forward, trying to bring op. 9 as close to the following Haydn string quartets as possible. The London group is more relaxed, deemphasizing the solo-violin-with-accompaniment style (except in the Adagio of No. 6 in A) and producing luminous tones, both individually and in ensemble. I sense a backward connection to the Baryton Trios: the way the second violin and viola “support” the strong cello suggests the sympathetic strings at the rear of the baryton. Whether or not that is my imagination, I find the suggested link revealing and the London performances highly evocative. All repeats are taken, except in Menuets da capo; the Festetics includes even those. Hyperion’s recorded sound is pure and true, as always, if a touch more reverberant than one might wish. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: James H. North
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