The Hungarian Festetics Quartet’s Haydn cycle
was generally warmly received on its first appearance. The Penguin
Guide to Compact Discs
found this imaginatively packaged two-disc
set of the great Op.71 and 74 Quartets to be "perceptively
observed, with well-blended yet beautifully transparent textures".
Indeed, their only reservation concerned the slow movements, which
they found to be "sometimes a little solemn".
In fact, to my ears, their whole approach borders
on the solemn, and I found myself constantly wishing for a touch
more vibrancy and attack. This represents something of a paradox
for a group playing on period instruments; one generally associates
the ‘historically aware’ lobby with performances that are usually
on the fast side, with sharp dynamic shading and phrasing that
tends towards ‘breathless’. What we get here, most of the time,
are rather old-fashioned performances, with the only obvious
sign of ‘authenticity’ being the lower pitch of the instruments.
If one turns to the class leaders in period quartet playing,
the Mosaique Quartet, the startling originality of Haydn’s writing
emerges as fresh as day one. In fact, two other budget discs
I had to hand, from the Kodálys on Naxos, and the Endellions
on Virgin, revealed modern instrument performances of considerably
more vitality and energy than the Festetics.
This does not mean that there are not things
to enjoy along the way, but as the writer of the interesting
liner note points out "Haydn decided to create a new style
in string quartet writing…where striking characteristics included
great contrasts built into the first subjects, surprise modulations
and bold harmonies". We should be constantly brought up
short by the sheer wit and inventiveness of Haydn’s writing;
instead, the contours are rather ‘flattened’ out, revealing
a leaden sameness to many of the movements.
Take the first movement of the most famous
of the Op.74 set, No. 3 in G minor (nicknamed ‘The Rider’,
but not by Haydn, needless to say); the gallumphing three/four
opening is surely a parody of a ländler peasant
dance, and needs the requisite accenting and dark humour that
the key suggests. The Festetics are just a shade po-faced here,
whereas the Endellions really make you sit up and take notice
(it is worth remembering that Haydn knew he may have difficult
audiences and larger venues in London, where these pieces were
to be premiered – hence the often arresting openings). The rich,
almost Romantic E major slow movement (marked Largo assai –
very slow and broad) finds the Festetics at their best, and
I particularly like the quasi-operatic style of the leader,
István Kertesz (any relation?). But reaching the finale
(the movement that prompted the title) we once again have a
tempo that is Allegro, but hardly con brio, and
music that should have an irresistible forward momentum is,
to my ears, compromised.
This general approach is basically the same
for most of the performances recorded here. Outer movement Allegros
are, for me, a shade too stodgy, minuets generally lack the
last ounce of sparkle (the pleasant exception being Op. 74 No.2,
in F major, where Haydn’s ubiquitous Allegretto marking
sounds just right), and slow movements are given plenty of weight
and gravitas. It will depend on how you like your Haydn
as to whether you will respond to this, and there is no doubting
the tonal beauty and quality of playing on offer (as a listener,
I was never really aware of the fact that these are period instruments).
Recording quality is first rate.
The main rival for this collection will doubtless
be the Kodálys on Naxos, a cycle that has garnered many
plaudits; the very same Penguin Guide, quoted above,
found the Naxos version of the ‘Apponyi’ Quartets to
be "outstanding in every way, and highly recommendable
at any price…the digital recording has vivid presence and just
the right amount of ambience, feeling entirely natural".
Need I say more?