Notes and Editorial Reviews
BRILLIANT 93889 (23 CDs: 1356:49)
Booklet Notes (CD ROM)
I have reviewed almost all of these recordings before; here are the references: opp. 1 and 2 (
32:1); op 9 (32:4); op. 17 (32:5), op. 20 (31:6); opp. 33 and 42 (30:5); op. 50, nos. 1-3 (32:4);
style="font-style:italic">The Seven Last Words
, op. 51 (31:1); op. 55 (32:4); op. 64 (32:4); opp. 71 and 74 (31:5); op. 76 (33:4); opp. 77 and 103 (31: 1). Only op. 50, nos. 4-6 and op. 54 are new to
. Although relistening has not altered any opinions expressed therein, one important error has surfaced. The CD ROM in this set contains 41 pages of program notes in English—and 41 more in German—including five pictures of the artists and the church in which the recordings were made. The notes, written by Professor Hubert Buchberger, are extraordinary, discussing every imaginable point about the state of Haydn editions, his group’s sources, their interpretive choices and instruments, plus analyses (without musical examples, however) of each quartet. The only comparable sets of notes I can recall are Eric Blom’s analyses of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas in EMI/Angel’s 13-LP box set of Schnabel’s recordings. Buchberger’s bombshell comes early:
Even ensembles which, like ours, opt for performing Haydn’s works—now over two centuries old—on modern instruments cannot easily ignore the contributions of historical performance practice. The relevant findings are too detailed, the interpretations of outstanding ‘historically informed’ artists too inspiring!
Modern instruments! And I have been telling you all along that these were period instruments played at modern pitch.
. This is indicative of another point I have been making about performances of music by Haydn and by other composers: because so many artists have been adapting to period practices, regardless of the instruments they play, the distance between the two worlds has shrunk. Here are the artists and the instruments they play:
(Lorenzo Storioni, Cremona, ca. 1775)
(Carlo Antonio Testore, Milan, 1747)
(Michael Ledfuss, St. Gallen, 1990)
(Paolo Antonio Testore, Milan 1750)
They came together in 1974, as students at Frankfurt’s Academy of Music and the Peforming Arts—performing Haydn—and there have been no personnel changes over the 35 years. Their only non-Haydn recordings that I know are four quartets by Ernst Toch on cpo, also excellent performances (
27:5), but they perform a wide repertoire, for example, winning first prize for contemporary music at a festival in 1980, playing Schoenberg and Maderna. For most of Haydn, up through op. 64, I prefer their recordings to all others (a live recording of op. 42 by The Lindsays is a notable exception). It has been hard to say why, as the Buchberger has its faults: the playing is not as precise, as clean, as some other groups, and they are very individual about choosing which repeats to play. I admire that, even if I sometimes would prefer different choices; it means that these four are making their own artistic decisions, not just following current PC consensus (their reasons are explained in the notes). As much as I admire period practices, I am too old to believe that we have at last discovered
way to play all music; we do learn, but some of it is mere fashion that will eventually change; we just don’t know into what.
In the review of Brilliant Classics’ 150-CD “Haydn Edition” (
32:4), I wrote that the Buchberger performances of the first three quartets of op. 50 were “so much fun that one must abandon criticism.” The same is true of Nos. 4-6. These readings are based on recent scholarship: the fugal finale of No. 4 is now Allegro molto instead of Allegro moderato, and it makes a whale of a difference; what a glorious movement! Buchberger notes that the Trio of No. 5 now begins in F Major instead of F Minor, revealing a wrong-note joke in the third bar; we’ve heard it before, but perhaps only in recent recordings. The Buchberger’s sparkling playing of all of op. 50 contributes at least as much as the musicological discoveries.
This is also the first issue of the Buchbeger’s op. 54. Written for a Paris publisher (as well as others in Vienna and London, a typical Haydn business strategy), they followed the recent “Paris” Symphonies in a call for virtuoso brilliance. Again making use of the latest scholarship, the Buchberger employs new tempos in all four movements of No. 1 in G, most notably opening with a Vivace instead of Allegro con brio, which works wonders. The slower, mere stately Menuet is less convincing. No. 2 in C has fewer discrepancies from my Dover score, but it too is beautifully realized by the Buchberger. The Trio’s screaming dissonances are faced head on, rather than in the apologetic manner of many performances, making the return to the Menuet’s C Major all the more comforting. The unusual Adagio finale is taken a bit quickly; that by Quatour Ysaÿe on Aeon has a deeper gravitas. No. 3 in E fails to come to life here—it seldom does. It still sounds like an experiment in writing music without a theme. The Buchberger does give the Menuet a charming swing. Nevertheless, this disc is another winner.
Preparing for this review, I did some navel-gazing, reading my own previous reviews of individual Buchberger sets (usually six quartets at time); a few neighboring Haydn reviews also catching the eye. Throughout the string quartets and the symphonies, one key equation manifests itself:
HAYDN = JOY
That is what makes Bernstein’s Haydn symphonies and masses so entrancing, and it applies equally to the Buchberger’s string quartets. Joy reigns, especially from op. 33 through op. 64 (
The Seven Last Words
and op. 55 are exceptions). I think I have finally figured out what makes this ensemble so special: these four musicians
this music, and love to play it. I’m sure other groups do, too, but they do not make it so obvious in their recordings. The Buchberger’s love and joy project from the speakers, and through the head phones, with almost every phrase, bringing the music to life as no other ensemble does. They can be solid and serious when required, too (opp. 20, 51, and 55). Perhaps they are unable to take the final step up to the sophistication and elegance of opp. 71, 74, 76, and 77; but perhaps it is just that so many superb ensembles have recorded these works, making it difficult for any one performance to stand out. I should mention a recent recording of op. 103 (reviewed in this issue?) which has quickly become my favorite: the Edding Quartet (founded in 2007!) on Et’cetera.
I would never dream of depending on a single recorded set of Beethoven symphonies, and I don’t imagine that any complete set of Haydn quartets could satisfy everyone all the time. But the Buchberger comes as close as I ever expect to hear. It makes performances by the Tatrai or the Kodály Quartet—both of which are technically excellent—sound dull and flat. I have heard only brief samples of the Los Angeles Quartet’s Haydn, and was not impressed. Among period ensembles, both the Mosaïques and Festetics Quartets have recorded compete cycles; each is precise, takes all repeats, and the former has a gorgeous ensemble sound, but the Buchberger makes them both seem overly conservative, even square, as is the rapidly progressing (modern-instrument) set by the Auryn. Only The Lindsays match the Buchberger for imagination and spirit, but their performances lack the tonal blandishments heard here. Bravo, Buchberger!
FANFARE: James H. North
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