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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets, Op 17

CD1 [75.40]
String Quartet in F major, Op 17 No 2, Hob.III.26 (1771) [23.42]
String Quartet in E major, Op 17 No 1, Hob.III.25 (1771) [31.43]
String Quartet in D major, Op 17 No 6, Hob.III.30 (1771) [20.15]
CD2 [75.02]
String Quartet in C minor, Op 17 No 4, Hob.III.28 (1771) [27.25]
String Quartet in E flat major, Op 17 No 3, Hob.III.27 (1771) [25.43]
String Quartet in G major, Op 17 No 5, Hob.III.29 (1771) [21.54]
Festetics Quartet: István Kertész (violin), Erika Petöfi (violin), Péter Ligeti (viola), Rezsö Pertorini (cello)
DDD: recorded 16-19 December 1993 (Hob.III.27/29/30) and 12-15 March 1994 (Hob.III.25/26/28) in the Bibliothèque des Techniques, Budapest, Hungary
ARCANA A412 [150.42]

 

Experience Classicsonline

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


 



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