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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets Opus 54 (1788): No. 1 in G major; No. 2 in C major; No. 3 in E major
Quatuor Ysaÿe
Rec 7-9 March 2003, Abbaye de líÉpau
AEON AECD 0313 [58.55]

The two sets of three string quartets of Opus 54 and Opus 55, and the set of six of Opus 64, came into being as the result of the composer's continuing friendship with the violinist Johann Tost.

Tost had been a prominent member of the Esterházy orchestra, but in 1788 he left in order to travel abroad, until it seems he took up a career as a merchant in Vienna. The twelve quartets he commissioned from Haydn around that time all encourage a special focus on the first violin. The composer gave special attention to the skills of a player whom he knew well, thereby extending towards a new approach to a medium in which he already excelled.

Although Haydn wrote a great many quartets, he still managed to give each of them a unique personality. In these quartets the role of the first violin, in tribute to the playing of Johann Tost, is always worthy of special attention. But it is by no means the only interesting feature. For example, did Haydn ever conceive an opening more invigorating than that of the first of these quartets. The rhythmic impetus is established immediately, and the Ysaÿe Quartet respond to the opportunity with evident relish. The performance has a real lift to it, and the recorded sound is truthful and unfussy.

Of the three quartets the second is probably the most original in approach, because it has a finale that begins and ends really slowly, at tempo Adagio, while at the centre is an intense Presto. The music poses challenges of interpretation and characterisation, but again both the players and the recording engineers respond with committed ardour to Haydnís inspired boldness.

Opus 54 No. 3 is a subtle piece, perhaps under-stated on first acquaintance, but the Ysaÿe players have the measure of the music. They capture its eloquent manner to perfection, with a true cantabile in the Adagio slow movement and a terse rhythmic emphasis in the minuet. Then the finale challenges the discipline of the performers with a Presto tempo, in another case of Haydnís preference for monothematic development, everything emanating from a single source. And this performance is blessed with wit and vitality, the two essential features of the music.

Terry Barfoot


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