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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet in G major Op.33 No.5 (1781) [17:07]
String Quartet in E Flat major Op.33 No.2 (1781) [16:27]
String Quartet in B minor Op.33 No.1 (1781) [20:31]
Quatuor Terpsycordes (Girolamo Bottiglieri (violin); Raya Raytcheva (violin); Caroline Haas (viola); François Grin (cello))
rec. Salle de Musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 20-23 November 2005
CLAVES 50-2608 [62:40]
 


When Haydn circulated the six quartets which were to make up his Op. 33 – written in 1781, published in 1782 – to a number of friends and patrons he accompanied them with a letter explaining that they were “written in a new and special way [auf eine gantz neue besonderer Art], for I haven’t composed any for ten years”. Some have taken the phrase to be no more than a kind of  ‘marketing’ ploy, others have taken it to mean rather more. As Haydn’s letter itself states, his last work in the string quartet form lay almost ten years in the past, represented by the op. 20 quartets of 1772.
 
There is little mileage in trying to argue whether or not the op. 33 quartets are ‘better’ than the op. 20 works; or whether the later quartets represent some sort of ‘progress’ in Haydn’s conception of the form. It is more profitable to pay real attention to Haydn’s own claims, which seem to amount to insistence that these quartets of 1781 are ‘new’, i.e. different from their predecessors and, perhaps, that they have some distinctive quality in common as a group. Any sense of what might be thought to be “new and special” about the op. 33 group needs to take into account what Haydn had been doing in the intervening ten years. At Esterhazy he had been prodigiously busy as Kapellmeister – in that ten years he had written, inter alia, almost thirty symphonies, three masses, twenty keyboard sonatas and fourteen operas – eight of them for the marionette theatre. This operatic experience is surely important to what Haydn now chose to do with the quartet, – putting less emphasis on the sonata-forms and fugues of the op. 20 quartets and more on the rhetorical interplay of voices, on melodic elegance, on witty inventions and dramatic pauses which might reasonably be called ‘theatrical’. There are comcomitant formal shifts: such as the fact that now – for the most part - only the opening movements are in sonata form; what were minuet movements are now generally designated scherzando or scherzo; most of the finales are rondos or employ other reiterative forms. The overall effect is to make the op. 33 quartets what Tovey suggestively described as “the lightest of all Haydn’s mature comedies” (in his still marvellous essay on Haydn in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music.
 
This enjoyable new CD brings us performances of three of the op. 33 quartets – the others are perhaps being reserved for a second CD?
 
The Quatuor Terpsycordes began life in 1997, bringing together four young musicians in Geneva, all of whom studied with Gábor Takáks-Nagy at the Geneva Conservatory. Made up of two Swiss musicians, a Bulgarian and an Italian, the quartet’s witty name alludes to the muse Terpsichore and also allows – as the booklet notes suggest – a punning subdivision into Terre-Psy-Cordes, so as to suggest both earth and spirit (and the strings which join them?). The quartet play nineteenth-century instruments – with gut strings – made by Jean-Baptiste and Nicolas-François Vuillaume, of the long established French family of luthiers, instruments made available to them by Musée d’Art et d’Histoire of Geneva.  
 
Their performances of these three quartets are warm-toned and well balanced. Their style seems particularly well suited to the first three movements of no.2, largely mellow and reflective. The expansiveness of the largo e sostenuto third movement has a dream-like but solemn quality and the viola playing of Caroline Haas is especially lovely. It makes  – by way of contrast – a striking prelude to the presto finale which obtained for the work its nickname of ‘The Joke’ as, at the close of the movement, the theme is played phrase by phrase, interspersed with rests until it seems to have been concluded – at which point the opening phrase is played again, bringing matters to a close in a fashion bound to puzzle, or even trick, unprepared listeners. The temptation to exaggerate this is resisted and the result is pleasantly teasing, articulated with a knowingness that avoids arrogance, such playfulness about beginnings and endings being entirely characteristic of the mature Haydn. In the first movement of no.1 in B minor the seemingly tentative and hesitant approach to the tonic is made both witty and touching, and the slow movement’s considerable beauty is clearly articulated, especially in the conversation between first violin and cello. The finale (the only sonata-form last movement in op.33) is played with appropriate energy.  No.5, which was the first of the set to be written, receives a joyous performance of its opening vivace assai, the interweaving of voices like a small-scale operatic ensemble; in the ensuing largo the singing melody punctuated by some ominous touches and the brief scherzo offers some relaxed humour; the variations of the finale aren’t quite made to bear the weight necessary to counterpoise what has gone before. But in every movement there is intelligence and a well-developed sense of shape and argument in the playing of this young quartet.
 
These are accomplished and eminently listenable performances of some fascinating music. It is some time since I heard the recording of the op. 33 quartets by Quatuor Mosaïques (Astrée 8801), but my memory is of slightly greater variety of colour and a more richly spontaneous, almost improvisatory, feeling in those recordings made in 2000. The Quatuor Terpsycordes is still a relatively young quartet; there are moments when their work has a certain nervous ‘correctness’ which perhaps inhibits them, but this is music-making rich in promise and already very accomplished. If they do record the other 3 quartets from op. 33, I shall certainly hope to hear the results.
 
Glyn Pursglove

 

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