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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 – 1809)
String Quartets Op. 71 & 74 The ‘Apponyi’ Quartets

Disc One
String Quartet in B flat major Op.71 no.1
String Quartet in D major Op.71 no.2
String Quartet in E flat major Op.71 no.3

Disc Two
String Quartet in C major Op. 74 no.1
String Quartet in F major Op. 74 no.2
String Quartet in G minor Op.74 no.3

Festetics Quartet

DDD: recorded 27-30 December 1994 (disc 1), 27-30 April 1995 (disc 2)
In the Bibliothèque des Techniques, Budapest, Hungary
ARCANA A 418 [2 discs: 71:56, 79:16]

 

Experience Classicsonline
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?

Tony Haywood



 



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