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Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets Op. 9 (1769)
No. 1 in C major [20.24]
No. 2 in E flat major [23.37]
No. 3 in G major [19.31]
No. 4 in D minor [23.16]
No. 5 in B flat Major [25.59]
No. 6 in A major [19.53]
London Haydn Quartet (Catherine Manson (violin); Margaret Faultless (violin); James Boyd (viola); Jonathan Cothen (cello))
rec. St. Paul’s Church, Deptford, London, 28-31 January, 2 February 2007. DDD
HYPERION CDA67611 [63.54 + 69.09]


There are still many books in circulation that describe Haydn as “the father of the symphony”. Nowadays it is apparent that what with the Mannheim school headed by Johann Stamitz and composers like Richter and Wagenseil who all precede Haydn, that the claim for Haydn does not stack up. However if we describe him as ‘Father of the string quartet’ we are not so far off the mark. 

Other composers had written the occasional quartet but the combination does not seem to have attracted the attention of many. What it was that sparked Haydn to write his first group one can’t say except that he obviously found it a pleasing and worthwhile form and Prince Esterhazy joined in. In addition he had, for a while, an excellent first violin: one Luigi Tommasini (1741-1808) who, after 1802, took over from Haydn as director of Chamber Music.

These Op. 9 Quartets mark the true beginning of Haydn’s long ‘quartet’ journey but they had been preceded by some interesting examples of the genre in Opp. 1 and 2 and these have of course been recorded.

Let’s take the Opp. 1 and 2 quartets. As Haydn worked the form he began with the idea of the divertimento that is five movements with two minuets framing a middle Adagio or Lento. The outer movements are fast but are also the shortest ones. For example Op. 1 no. 5 has an opening movement a third the length of the slow third movement. The 1st Violin is predominant with a considerably lesser role for the others, a situation only found in Op. 9 with the first movement of number 3. These early works probably date from c.1757-62.

One can almost say that these quartets mark Haydn’s ‘coming of age’ because by the time we reach Op. 9 the formal emphasis is totally different. There are now the usual four movements as we have come to expect, with the first one by far the longest. Op. 9 no. 2 has an opening movement which is almost half the length of the entire work. This first movement is in what we now call Sonata-form or as Haydn would have called it, ‘First movement form’, with two subjects, a development and a recapitulation. There are repeat marks just before the development so that the exposition is heard twice. Then there are further repeat marks meaning that the development and recap are also heard twice. This is how the movements are played here, but it’s not quite as simple as that. It depends whether the performers or indeed you the listener hear a sonata-form structure as either ternary (ABA) or Binary (AB) form. If both repeats are meticulously observed then you hear sonata-form as a sort of advancement of binary form. If the repeats are not observed then the three sections - exposition, development and recap - are clearly heard in succession so then it is an advancement of ternary form and the movement length is consequently shorter. The first movement then may become of equal length with at least two of the other movements or just a little longer. What really isn’t acceptable in this scenario is the observing of the first repeat and not the second. 

With these performances you get all of the repeats. If you do not want that then you should look elsewhere possibly at the Naxos recordings on modern instruments with the Kodaly Quartet. The London Haydn Quartet plays on original instruments. Normally I love the sound of such instruments but here I find the sound rather strained and febrile. No amount of turning down the treble has really helped. One does get used to it after a while but some friends who like Haydn told me that they felt the vibrato-less sound of the players to be “lacking in warmth and rather shrill”. 

In Op. 9 Haydn places the minuet second. He continued to do this right up to Op. 74 composed in the early 1790s. At that point he finally copied the order of his symphonies which had had the Minuet coming third since as early as the 5th Symphony. The effect is that the listener is really ready for the slow movement as he/she was in the earlier Opp. 1 and 2 divertimento-inspired pieces. All of the Op. 9 slow movements are lyrical and memorable. My favourite is from No. 2; the booklet writer seems to prefer that from No. 3. The minuets are all quite different; some as in No. 3 are rather influenced by gypsy or peasant music with drone-like accompaniments and dancing fiddlers. 

The 4th Quartet, which is probably the most performed, ‘turns on the dark side’ as Michael Tippett might have said. After three light works we turn to the minor and to the serious. Richard Wigmore in his notes reckons that this quartet was the first to be composed, although he fails to say why. My gut reaction for what it’s worth, is that it seems to be a more mature and concentrated piece especially the first movement. It speaks as the product of a very experienced composer. Even the minuet is intense and one is reminded of the influence of C.P.E. Bach (born 1714) and his concept of ‘empfindsamer Stil’ or ‘heightened sensibility’ which we also find in the later Haydn symphonies like Nos. 44 and 45 which date from the early 1770s. 

The 5th Quartet in B flat is, despite the key, a thoughtful but lighter work which opens with a Theme and Variations and a delightful melody rather inelegantly captured by Catherine Manson I feel. The final A major quartet also has the feeling of a mature and important statement but neither work is portentous or stirring, like the extraordinary D minor. The slow movement of No. 5 is the longest of the set and is magically captured by these performers. 

The Quartets are presented not in numerical order, as already said number 4, which comes first, may have been written first. We are told, in a brief ‘Note from the performers about the editions’, that the sequence has been presented in the printed order of a 1790 edition and in Haydn’s  Entwurf-Katalog’. I don’t know about you but I would not listen to six or even three Haydn quartets consecutively and naturally have heard them in numerical order as and when I wanted. 

As you can possibly tell, I have slightly mixed feelings about this disc but I will certainly play it again as the music is of such value and enchantment. I might however search out another version one day.

Gary Higginson



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