Haydn’s Op 17 are among the least often played
and recorded of the complete cycle, and so this beautifully
packaged issue provides us with a comparatively rare opportunity
to savour these interesting pieces, which illustrate Haydn’s
emerging genius and personality in this still-new genre.
It is important to be aware of the chronological
and stylistic context of these pieces. If we disregard the Op
1 and Op 2 quartets as essentially orchestral divertimenti,
and the Op 3 set as mistakenly attributed to Haydn, then
Op 9 (from 1770, only a year before Op 17) is in fact the
earliest batch of true string quartets. The year following Op
17, 1772, saw Haydn complete his first real masterpieces in
the medium, Op 20, at about the same time as he was writing
the so-called ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies. So this was a busy
period for Haydn, when his quartet style was developing rapidly.
The early date of these pieces (it is tempting
to talk of their immaturity) is evidenced in the assigning of
melodic material to the first violin as the (almost…) invariable
rule, with viola and cello (as if orchestral voices) often doubling
one another’s parts. There are occasions (the last movement
of the C minor, for example) where the leader’s part is virtuosic,
and the cello line simultaneously perfunctory! And it has to
be admitted that, like much of Op 9 before it, the Op 17 set
is not without its longeurs or moments of routine.
In terms of structure, rhythmic vocabulary
and harmonic language, however, we see Haydn repeatedly breaking
away from the norms of his time. For every balanced four-square
phrase, there are several which steal a real surprise, answering
3 bars with 5, or 4 bars with 6. For every page of conventional
note-spinning, there is another where nothing matches our expectations.
Off-the-shelf mannerisms are often countered by moments of real
beauty and stirring effect. In particular, the minuets (always
second in the sequence) are dance-like (no scherzi, these)
but full of individuality.
The Festetics Quartet play with finesse, polish
and affection. Indeed, they are elegant and restrained to the
extent that opening movements – where a more energetic approach
is surely called for – sometimes lack momentum and dynamic contrast.
(It is true that Haydn’s plodding bass lines don’t help keep
things moving!) On the other hand, when Haydn adopts his rustic,
muscular manners, they certainly rise to the occasion. And the
vocal (almost operatic) quality of much of the slow music is
most sensitively done: in the slow movement of the D major,
for example, the 1st violinist’s singing line and sweet tone
are all that one could wish for.
Of course Naxos steal the Haydn Quartet show
with their consistently excellent series from fellow Hungarians,
the Kodály Quartet, at bargain price: their Op 17 (Nos
1, 2 and 4 on 8.550853; Nos 3, 5 and 6 on 8.550854) is as good
as any. But the Festetics use contemporary (i.e. ‘period’) instruments,
the production (an excellent booklet in the centre of a folding
triptych-like case) is lavish, and the recording (more intimate
than the Kodály’s) is admirably detailed and spacious.
Peter J Lawson