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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets - Volume 2
String Quartet Op.64 No.6 in E-flat (1790) [16:17]
String Quartet Op.77 No.1 in G (1799) [23:31]
String Quartet Op.20 No.4 in D (1722) [23:39]
The Amsterdam String Quartet
rec. June 2008, Hervormde Kerk, Rhoon
Experience Classicsonline

This is volume two of a projected recording of Haydn’s entire output for string quartet – at least, this seems implicit from the CD booklet, which states that the highly regarded Amsterdam String Quartet will be performing all of these works in 2009. Released on hybrid SACD, these tracks are also available as MP3 downloads at lesser cost. The SACD release has Channel Classics’ typically high standard of sound quality, with plenty of close detail as well as a healthy sense of fresh air between the players and that clean ‘Reformed Church’ acoustic: you can close your eyes and visualise all that white paint, well kept woodwork and stone flags polished smooth by the feet of many generations.
The Amsterdam String Quartet’s hallmark is absolute refinement in terms of sound, phrasing, articulation and intonation. I’m quite used to the ‘period instrument sound’ when it comes to string quartets. It’s quite often a more transparent sound than with the higher tension modern strings, and there is a kind of natural ‘grain’ to the tone of individual notes which collectively gives a different colour to modern quartet. While initially a little thinner in quality, especially in the higher registers, these period instruments nonetheless have plenty of dynamic contrast and expressive potential. The Amsterdam Quartet are clear experts and these are very fine performances, but almost from the outset I found myself wondering if the very ‘authenticity’ in these recordings would be something which Haydn himself would have recognised or enjoyed. Vibrato is use very sparingly here, which is something I generally applaud, but all the way through I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that this quartet was more involved in their own sophistication than with what Haydn is really expressing in the music. This is a very subjective area and I will be the first to admit that one man’s Champagne is another man’s Lambrusco, but for me these recordings – extremely beautiful, cultured and superior as they are – just ain’t all that much fun.
Comparing like with like, I unearthed an old Harmonia Mundi box from the 1990s which also boasts period instrument recordings, with the Hungarian Quatuor Festetics. I had remembered this as being a bit more rough and ready, but in fact this quartet also has plenty of subtlety and refinement, pushing the boat out a great deal more in terms of drama and contrast of sonority. The opening Allegro of the String Quartet Op.64 No.6 is a real gallery of fluxing imagery and musical narrative, and with the Festetics Quartet I had much more the  feeling of a journey of educated substance. Back in the world of the Amsterdam Quartet, and I’m being pampered and treated to the ultimate powder and wig treatment, but ultimately looking through a rather more two dimensional mirror. The rhythms don’t bounce along enough, the melodic lines are the perfectly placed lines of a Rembrandt etching, but printed from a plate which has been used a few times too many, and has lost the life-blood of those first imprints. The moments of lively contrast don’t reach out and grab, the intensity of the passages of counterpoint is lost. It’s all exquisite, but it’s a museum perfection – untouchable and overly precious, frustratingly close but held under glass and watched over by the uniformed guards of Good Taste.
Well, how very dare I be critical. To be fair, there are lovely touches all the way through this recording. The little glissandi in the Allegretto section of the third movement of the Op.64 quartet are very sweet, but I am less keen on the big breaks between sections in this kind of movement and would have preferred greater continuity. The great String Quartet Op.77 nr.1 in G stands out as a masterpiece in any collection, but, while again enjoying the fine playing on this recording I missed any real depth – you can have smooth, but without any real roughness it’s like having guacamole without any tortilla chips. I would have appreciate a bit more weight in the cello sound in this quartet and elsewhere as well, though this is sometimes a side effect of gut strings, needing a bit more oomph to establish resonance and being less wieldy in passages with more notes. The racy Finale Presto suits the lighter sound of this quartet well with notes being tossed around with suitable abandon. There is more light and shade built into the opening movement of the String Quartet Op.20 nr.4 in D and the Amsterdam players build a nice tension in the quietest of passages. The ‘hobbling’ rhythm of the little Menuetto is nicely turned but, again, it’s just too porcelain and perfect – I want to be falling over my own shoelaces when it comes on, not staring dreamily at the clouds in that wonderful painted ceiling.
I don’t want you to have the impression that I ‘have it in for’ the Amsterdam String Quartet – after all, they only live just down the road from me and are I am sure quite capable of coming round and jabbing me with their music stands. This is a recording and performance of extremely high standard. I’ve been living with it, playing it on an MP3 player while biking to work as well as enjoying it as a full hi-fi experience, trying to shake myself free of all those annoying frustrations I have about the playing. They are still there however, and re-discovering the combination of bracing energy and expressive warmth in the Festetics Quartet has gone some way to making me realise what I miss in these new recordings. If it’s absolute refinement and perfect poise in clean early-music purity and state of the art SACD sound you are after, then this is a very nice place to bathe in these limpid wonders. If it’s Haydn in all his colourful guises you want, then I would politely suggest that other interpretations are available.
Dominy Clements


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