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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Complete String Quartets Volume 5
String Quartets Opp. 76 (1794-97), 77 (1798-99) and 103 (1803)
Quatuor Festetics on instruments of the period
Recorded April 1996, May 1997 and August 1997 at the Budapest Bibliothèque des Techniques
ARCANA A 419-1-3 [3CDs: 73.03+72.51+64.45]
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This triple CD spans the last nine of Haydn’s eighty-three numbered quartets. Many commentators consider these works to be his greatest in the genre, indeed the climax of his career. The six which make up Opus 76 were written probably between 1794-7, the two quartets Opus 77 probably date from 1798/9, and the composer’s last quartet, the melancholic two movement Opus 103 in D minor, probably comes from 1803.

Complete recordings of Haydn quartets are not uncommon so why choose this one, and why this series? There have in fact been two more sets since this came out in 2000 and there are still more sets to come in the spring 2003 and Spring 2004 before the complete edition is available.

There is much to enjoy here. The pleasure is enhanced by label Arcana’s beautiful presentation: a case with fold-over flaps, excellent booklet notes (written by Laszlo Somfai) and helpful but not overly detailed analysis of each work. There is also a note about the editions used. The recordings are of a fine and clear quality. An important difference from much of the competition is the fact that Arcana’s ‘Festetics’ quartet plays on original instruments. This lends an "authentic" (please forgive this much embattled word) bias.

Istvan Ketesz the leader plays a Milanese violin of the 18th Century. Now and again its upper register jars and seems a little thin, but it also has a mellow tone particularly down on the G and D strings where it is something quite special. The opening of the so-called ‘Sunrise’ quartet (Op.76 no.4), with its poised and delightful rising melody, works wonderfully on this instrument. Erika Petofi plays a German violin of c.1770, which supports and balances the ensemble. The viola, especially notable in the darkly-hued colours of Op.76 no.2 (in D minor) was made by Matthias Bolzano and is dated 1651. The cello played by Rezso Pertorini is French and anonymous 17th Century. The cello and viola are especially strong and in character. I particularly liked the perfect tuning of the drone effects in the 1st movement of the ‘Emperor’ quartet (around bar 70). One cannot guarantee that a group of instruments made over 100 years apart, and in different countries, will work together, but without a doubt these do.

I always say that performances on authentic instruments are good as an alternative to a version on modern ones. This is not just because of the instruments themselves, although that can be factor, but because of the style of performance that seems to be a natural concomitant of their use. Phrasing, bowing and indeed speeds adopted by the Festetics may well be quite different from what one has come to expect. It is no good relying on your Eulenberg editions of the scores because the editions or texts as the booklet calls them, as used here, may well be different. This is particularly noticeable with repeats. I quote from the booklet: the texts "show a transition from the classical routine (both parts of the sonata-form-like structure repeated to a new concept more characteristic of Beethoven’s time, repeating only the first i.e. the Exposition as required in Op.76 no.1 in G for example". You can expect, in addition, the Development and Recapitulation sections to be repeated as marked in some editions. This means that the Emperor Quartet’s 1st movement comes out at almost twelve minutes instead of the average six and a half or so. Indeed it seems somewhat perfidious not to repeat the second half of this movement anyway especially when you realise that Haydn writes in the score fifteen bars from the end ‘La seconda volta piu presto’.

The famous slow ‘Theme and variations’ movement of the ‘Emperor’ Quartet (Op.76 no.3) demonstrates another outcome of the "authentic" approach. The Festetics play it in what might be considered a rather matter-of-fact way, and there is no, or at least little, vibrato: they employ a straighter bowing technique on gut strings. The tempo too is faster than you might expect. All sentimentality has been removed, rather like a layer of varnish. Comparing the timing of this movement with other groups proves the point, for example they are over a minute faster than the reliable Kodaly Quartet on Naxos (8.550129). On the whole, slow movements are faster but the others remain as one might expect; indeed the Minuet and Trio in the Op.76 no.2 (the Fifths’) is rather steady and the Festetics adopt the policy, which may be alien to most listeners, of adhering to the repeats in the da capo of the Minuets.

What I have said concerning the Op.76 applies similarly to the two great quartets of Op.77, with their equally balanced movements, the 1st in G major being rather classical. and the second in F major, pointing towards Beethoven.

These are everything you might expect from top quality performances. The Quatuor Festetics demonstrate excellent articulation and attention to detail clearly captured by producer Michael Bernstein. The sound, which is often very beautiful, captures playing of much pathos. This is carefully balanced and often passionate - especially in the Finales. So on consideration, yes, I can warmly recommend the series to you.

Gary Higginson

 



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