Joseph HAYDN (1732–1809)
27 String Quartets and the Seven Last Words on the Cross
Full list of contents at end of review
Amadeus String Quartet
rec. 1963-78

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8116 [10 CDs; 52:44 + 61:13 + 59:55 + 59:51 + 51:25 + 59:08 + 66:30 + 60:27 + 64:08 + 52:29]

There have been a number of box sets devoted to the Amadeus Quartet of late. Some offer a range of work - there’s a DG retrospective that covers Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms for instance and its direct clone on Brilliant (see review). Other approaches target live broadcast performances. Some too provide the ancillary pleasure of more directly historical material.

This DG box presents familiar friends; the stereo recordings of Haydn quartets made between 1963 and 1978, and long since part of the quartet’s legacy on disc. It’s true to say that their 1950s recordings evinced a tauter rhythmic charge, but there are great riches in these later undertakings, ones that still work their magic on the listener.

I suppose it’s the sense of corporate weight, a sonorous and sometimes engulfing warmth, that most obviously characterises their Haydn performances; that and Norbert Brainin’s characteristic sound, and the promotion of a corporate refulgent pathos. The grandeur of this kind of conception can be auditioned in their The Seven Last Words recording in which the wide-spaced recording captures the richly vibrated ethos very successfully. There have always been strongly argued positions on their approach, but I think it’s fair to say that in the Op.54 set the Allegro con brio of the G major is sufficiently buoyant and not too ‘heavy’ or static. The same quartet’s finale is imbued with witty badinage – the rests are not, however, overplayed. Some may find the Adagio of Op.54 No.2 too unrelieved and airless, but whilst the long Largo cantabile of No.3 is certainly cantilevered it’s not without its own sense of internal rhythmic emphases. It’s certainly not static. Siegmund Nissel proves the old adage that a quartet is only as good as it second violin throughout this set, but seldom more so than in the case of the opening of Op.55 No.3 where he proves marvellously communicative and sensitive.

There is indeed a plethora of delightful and lastingly valuable things to admire and upon which to reflect. Try the pomposo element in the Allegretto of Op.64 No.1 and the rapt directness with associated ‘pathetic’ phraseology in the second movement of Op.64 No.2 – where the inner voices are warm and mellifluous. Or sample the sweetness and songfulness of the same quartet’s Menuetto. This gemütlich quality has often been brandished as a stick with which to beat the Amadeus and it’s true that a rival (complete) cycle made at roughly the same time – by the Aeolian (Decca) – promoted leaner sonorities, tighter vibratos and a collective tension that the Amadeus didn’t particularly aspire to. The affection that the Amadeus displayed – as in the slow movement of the Lark - was very much of an overtly expressive kind and could, on occasion, sound a touch milked, as perhaps it does in this instance.

The recorded acoustic clearly had something to do with it. It sounds even bigger in the Op.71 recordings and this tended to inflate the already lush and rich sound to bursting point; almost in fact to the status of a quasi chamber outfit. Despite the attention to lighter bow weight in the slow movement of Op.71 No.2 this particular disc (No.6) strikes me still as something of a disappointment. The Op.74 quartets are highly accomplished in their own way, textually quite dense but full of vibrancy and engaged colour, if not the ultimate in clearly etched rhythm. Even better is Op.76 where all six quartets are presented in echt Amadeus style – sonorous, and deftly lightening unison weight when necessary without relinquishing essential communicative power. The drones in the Emperor may not be as explicit as those of other practitioners but they are related to the material without undue exaggeration. There’s charm too, in the second movement of the Fifth particularly.

This sense of homogenised tonal unanimity, of a strongly vibrated expressive cantabile can be best appreciated in the Largo of Op.79 No.5 and for those who admire such things the lavish juice expended in the slow movement of Op.77 No.1 is either a reflection of admirable commitment or a generic timbral response: season according to taste.

What is not in doubt is the value and utility of a box such as this. These performances reflect the DNA of the performers as assuredly as the rather more ad hoc pre-war performances of the Pro Arte reflect theirs. In a pluralistic marketplace, with original instrument performances as well as those by, say, the Budapest Quartet on offer, there will always be a place for the Amadeus.

Jonathan Woolf

CD 1 [52:44]
The Seven Last Words, Op.51 [52:44]
CD 2 [61:13]
String Quartet in G major, Op.54, no.1 (Hob.III:58) [19:35]
String Quartet in C major, Op.54, no.2 (Hob.III:57) [19:19]
String Quartet in E, Op.54 No.3 (Hob. III:59) [22:04]
CD 3 [59:55]
String Quartet in A, Op.55 No.1 (Hob.III:60) [16:17]
String Quartet in F minor, Op.55 No.2 "The Razor" (Hob.III:61) [24:36]
String Quartet in B flat, Op.55 No.3 (Hob.III:62) [18:46]
CD 4 [59:51]
String Quartet in C, Op.64 No.1 (Hob.III:65) [20:59]
String Quartet in B minor, Op.64 No.2 (Hob.III:68) [17:53]
String Quartet in B flat major, op.64, no.3, (Hob.III:67) [20:12]
CD 5 [51:25]
String Quartet in G, Op.64 No.4 (Hob.III:66) [16:52]
String Quartet in D major, Op.64, no.5 "The Lark" (Hob.III:63) [17:27]
String Quartet in E flat, Op.64 No.6 (Hob.III:64) [16:56]
CD 6 [59:08]
String Quartet in B flat, Op.71 No.1 (Hob.III:69) [20:30]
String Quartet in D, Op.71 No.2 (Hob.III:70) [16:50]
String Quartet in E flat, Op.71 No.3 (Hob.III:71) [21:36]
CD 7 [66:30]
String Quartet in C, Op.74 No.1 (Hob.III:72) [66:30]
String Quartet in F Op.74 No.2 (Hob.III:73) [21:43]
String Quartet in G minor Op.74 No.3 "The Rider" (Hob.III:74) [21:35]
CD 8 [60:27]
String Quartet in G major Op 76 no.1 (Hob.III:75) [19:28]
String Quartet in D minor Op.76 no.2 (Hob.III:76) "Fifths" [19:37]
String Quartet in C major Op.76 no.3 (Hob.III:77) "Emperor" [21:14]
CD 9 [64:08]
String Quartet in B flat major Op.76 no.4 (Hob.III:78) "Sunrise" [22:39]
String Quartet in D major Op.76 no.5 (Hob.III:79) [18:46]
String Quartet in E flat major Op.76 no.6 (Hob.III:80) [22:32]
CD 10 [52:29]
String Quartet in G major Op.77 no.1 (Hob.III:81) [19:56]
String Quartet in F major Op.77 no.2 (Hob.III:82) [21:41]
String Quartet in D minor Op.103 (Hob.III:83) - uncompleted [10:41]

Great riches that still work their magic on the listener… see Full Review