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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets, Op. 17 (1771): CD 1: C minor, No. 4 [25:36]; E flat major, No. 3 [26:02]; F major, No. 2 [23:51]; CD 2: E major, No. 1 [32:36]; G major, No. 5 [21:56]; D major, No. 6 [18:35]
The London Haydn Quartet (Catherine Manson (violin); Margaret Faultless (violin); James Boyd (viola); Jonathan Cohen (cello))
rec. St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 6-11 August 2008. DDD
HYPERION CDA67722 [74:32 + 73:35]
Experience Classicsonline

From the opening of Quartet 1 (CD2 tr. 1) I was struck by the sense of measure and space achieved by The London Haydn Quartet. The theme is pleasingly straightforward yet urbanely proposed and it evolves, happy to explore unexpected directions and diverting digressions. So the exposition taking 2:28 is like one large strand in continuous presentation. When you feel it’s going to settle down into a recapitulation at 6:00 it becomes more assertive and expansive. This feint recapitulation is followed by the genuine article at 6:41. As with a number of movements in these early quartets the first violin holds the spotlight. There’s a patient, considered unfolding by Catherine Manson with the display elements judiciously underplayed while the lower parts gently nurture the soloist. In the second movement Minuet (tr. 2) this unanimity of approach is equally marked. Here is a courtly, somewhat cool dance with some sweetly distilled melody and firm balancing harmonies. The Trio (2:26) which takes us suddenly from E major to E minor is clouded and brooding. You’re grateful for the return of the Minuet.

In the slow movement the distillation is more intent. Here particularly you feel what’s most striking about these accounts, the use of gut strings and classical bows bringing a luminous upper register and penetratingly clear lower register sound in the pleasingly glowing but not over-reverberant acoustic of St George’s Brandon Hill. This is a period instrument sound without the fragility and intonation problems sometimes heard from historic instruments. There’s no documentation of the instruments used so I assume they are modern, but the key elements of the strings and bows used plus forward and immediate recording all contribute to a wonderfully pristine effect. Add to this, however, the sensitivity of the playing, especially in the slow movements. Quartet 1 bows out in a Presto finale of dapper scintillation.

Quartet 2 has an opening movement which is here sheer delight, a dainty piece of highly wrought filigree work in which the lower parts are thoroughly involved. The Minuet this time is suave and a bit self-conscious. The slow movement is an eloquent, sustained sheen of sound. The finale is busy and merry.

In Quartet 3 you soon grasp that the opening theme will be the basis of a refined set of variations. The London Haydn Quartet’s fine balance between the parts is notable, how all contribute to the whole effect. Variation 1 (CD1 tr. 5 1:33) offers a graceful extension of the first violin’s melody with the emphasis more on exploration than display. Variation 2 (3:03) is more airborne with delightful pirouetting in the second violin and viola. Variation 3 (4:31) finds the first violin cheerfully trotting in demisemiquavers. In Variation 4 (6:01) the liveliness passes to the cello’s running semiquavers.

I compared the Kodaly Quartet recording (Naxos 8.550854). Here are the comparative timings, the brackets in the Kodaly entry indicating what they would be had they observed repeats which is what the London Haydn Quartet do:

Timings I II III IV Total
London Haydn Quartet 7:33 3:33 11:09 3:47 26:09
Kodaly Quartet 7:50 3:17 5:53 (11:46) 2:51 (4:07) 20:03 (27:12)

In comparison with LHQ the Kodaly Quartet’s account is direct, firmly melodic but rustically rugged. LHQ in the first movement are more stylishly pointed and their phrasing is more dance like. The skipping, more incisive tracery of the inner parts in Variation 2 is a good example of the greater clarity of the LHQ sound while there’s simply more shimmering dazzle about their Variation 3.

The Minuet in this quartet is a light-hearted dance. The Trio is unusually the livelier portion with first violin running quavers but the second violin glints above these from time to time. Again the LHQ articulate more deftly, with the Kodaly Quartet warmer but also more dense in tone. The slow movement is a sumptuous cantilena of fastidious yet expressive journeying, the quintessence of classical style in its organization and development yet also with a retrospective quality. It has in its ambience something of the baroque fantasia. The LHQ account flows more cogently than the Kodaly and yet also has a texture whose richness is more noticeable.

The LHQ give us an effervescent, chattering finale. It’s taken at a pace at which the entries of the parts in turn from highest to lowest (tr. 8 0:15) can be appreciated, as can the continuous echoes between them in the second part. The Kodaly Quartet seem earthbound by comparison.

Quartet 4 (CD2 tr. 1) is the only one in the set in a minor key. It opens with a thoughtful four-note motto but the second theme (0:43) is more yielding in the London Haydn Quartet’s hands, as if shafts of sunlight readily appear, and the exposition ends dancing. In this performance these shifts of mood are seamlessly effected with dynamic contrast lightly applied. The development (3:35) is at first warmer, but thereafter with more sustained reflection. C minor gives way to C major for a Minuet liltingly done here, at ease with itself. But a wan Trio in C minor distils all the sad experiences making the return of the steady state Minuet more appreciated.

The slow movement Adagio cantabile is an exquisite example of the art of elaboration with an extended, florid first violin cantilena, the repeat written out with more ornamentation, all gracefully done here. The finale (tr. 4), with a short motto theme, is somewhat fractious and the London Haydn Quartet enjoy its biting sforzando chords. The development (2:03) is freer with an air of greater abandon.

Quartet 5 (CD2 tr. 5) opens with a gracious, courteous outline flecked with occasional more severe thrusts - the sudden loud entries at 0:45 and 0:56 - not overplayed here but an element of significance, difficulties faced in achieving the desired steady state, after which some carefree rhapsodizing from first violin. As a whole the movement offers an intriguing and civilized ambivalence, as when the opening G major motif appears in the minor. I compared the Los Angeles Quartet account (Philips 4646502, no longer available). Here are the comparative timings. The brackets indicate what the durations would be in the first movement had the Los Angeles observed the second half repeat in that way that LHQ do:

Timings I II III IV Total
London Haydn Quartet 10:36 2:43 5:14 3:23 22:06
Los Angeles Quartet 6:32 (9:30) 2:55 5:14 3:32 18:14 (21:12)

The Los Angeles performance is silkier, eased forward more fluently, more virtuosic and with more marked dynamic contrasts. The London Haydn Quartet, however, provide an interpretation which is more fastidious, less evanescent.

In the Minuet it’s the second violin’s whirring quavers that provide a disturbing undercurrent and the brooding lower parts in the Trio seem to take account of this. I prefer the quieter pointing of these features by the London Haydn Quartet than the more dramatic approach of the Los Angeles Quartet.

The slow movement is the most directly achingly expressive arioso and formal too in its associated use of recitative. Notable is the sensitive pleading of the first violin. Again I prefer the concentrated, stoic gaze of the LHQ, where you’re less aware of artifice than with the more colourful and varied Los Angeles Quartet who bring memorably fragile, melting, romantic elements. The finale is for the first time all happiness, punctuated by a kicking motif on viola and cello in turn and featuring a gleefully scampering first violin. LHQ are spirited but also incisive. The Los Angeles’ account is more crafted, with more light and shade but less direct engagement.

Quartet 6 sports a Presto first movement which here bounces lightly along, a perpetuum mobile of concentrated playfulness, like two kittens playing with a ball of wool and it seems like two because of the others’ close support of the first violin lead. After this the Minuet is sweet, florid and rather antiquated, to which the Trio provides a kind of perky variation in first violin running quavers. The slow movement has a Vivaldi-like sustained lyrical flow, particularly suited to The London Haydn Quartet’s gut strings presentation. This makes it radiant, though the accompaniment of rocking semiquavers is perhaps a little too present and propelled forward a shade overmuch for a Largo. The finale is unmistakably Presto here, very frisky with a touch of devilment and tuttis with a gypsy wail and abandon. It’s all deliciously done, before a surprise ending in which the whole gathering dissolves into thin air.

These superb LHQ performances set the standard for Haydn interpretation, yet the two CDs are available for the price of one. The LHQ have also recorded the op. 9 set and it is available on the same 2-for-1 basis on Hyperion CDA67722.

Michael Greenhalgh



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