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Classical Editor in Chief: Rob Barnett
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets, Opus 9
Quartet No. 1 in C major
Quartet No. 2 in E flat major
Quartet No. 3 in G major
Quartet No. 4 in D minor
Quartet No. 5 in B flat major
Quartet No. 6 in A major
Rec 6-9 August 1998, Bibliotghèque des Techniques, Budapest
ARCANA A411 [2CDs: 66.02+70.03]
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Haydn's six Quartets, Opus 9, represent an important landmark in his development, as do the 'Sturm und Drang' symphonies (such as the Trauer and the Farewell, Nos. 44 and 45) from the early 1770s, with which they are contemporary. Not that the quartets are works of 'storm and stress': Haydn evidently regarded the quartet medium as too domesticated for that. However, there is no question that their sophistication of technique and directness of expression mark them as music of some importance, not merely music for entertainment. Indeed, the composer evidently thought so, since in later life he referred to them as 'the compositions in which I came of age'.
Listening to these six quartets brings all these considerations into focus. For the music is direct and engaging, always sounding well while bringing many surprises along the way. These performances by the Hungarian group, the Quatuor Festetics, are nicely recorded, with a suitable ambience to balance sonority and detail, and with tempi and phrasing that never fail to seem appropriate. Take, for example, the beautifully judged opening of the Adagio third movement of Quartet No. 4 (CD1, TRACK 3: 0.00), whose smoothly flowing contour is soon balanced by a firmer rhythm as a violin solo.
In all six pieces Haydn's preference is to place his slow movements third, after the minuets. In general this is probably because the opening movements adopt relatively slow tempi: the first movement of Quartet No. 1 (CD1, TRACK 5: 0.00) is a particularly telling example, with a phrase structure which has a strong emotional pull.
In this sense the real exception is the final work of the set, the Quartet No. 6, in which the unequivocal Presto tempo creates an intensity all of its own (CD2, TRACK 9: 0.00). Of course these compositions were not conceived to be played together at the same time, so the point behind the comparison has to be to make us aware of Haydn's freshness and inexhaustible imagination and sheer range. Not that No. 6 is the only movement to have a sense of lively activity and attack. In their own ways the various finales achieve this, a good example being the Presto of Quartet No. 4 (CD1, TRACK 4: 0.00). And this movement is useful also as a typical example of Haydn's quartet technique at this phase of his career. It would be several years before he embarked upon a process involving a 'partnership of equals', in the Opus 33 set which so inspired Mozart.
Here he prefers to give the principal melodic material to the top line, giving the remainder of the ensemble a supporting role. But what imaginative support it is. Either with contrapuntal lines of imaginative harmonies, his textures are never the routine textures of theme-and-accompaniment, and the music always holds abundant interest for both the players and the listener. In this regard the achievement of the Quatuor Festetics is not to be taken for granted, and they perform the music with consummate skill and dedication. They use what the excellent booklet note describes as 'original instruments', but the performances are big-boned, direct and sonorous. To some extent this is because the acoustic is ample and the recording close and somewhat larger-than-life. Whatever the context, the music emerges with vitality and freshness, and surely that is all that matters.
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