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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
The Complete String Quartets
see end of review for disk listing
Kodaly Quartet (Attila Falvay (violin I); Tamàs Szabó (violin II); Gábor Fias (viola) (János Fejérvári, CD s 4-5); Jànos Devich (cello) (György Éder CDs 4-5)
rec. 1989-2000. Unitarian Church, Budapest, Hungary; apart from Phoenix Studio, Budapest, Hungary (CDs 4, 5, 14), Hungaroton Studios, Rottenbiller St, Budapest, Hungary (CDs 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25), Fönix Studio; Unitarian Church, Budapest, Hungary (CD 24). DDD
NAXOS 8.502400 [25CDs: 25:42:24]

Experience Classicsonline

If 1848 is known as ‘the year of revolutions’ then 2009 should be known as ‘the year of anniversaries in music’ as some of the biggest guns in music had anniversaries then: 350 years since the birth of Purcell, 250 years since the death of Handel, 200 years since the death of Haydn, 200 years since the birth of Mendelssohn. Add to this list 160 years since the death of Chopin, 140 years since the death of Gottschalk, 60 since the death of Richard Strauss and 50 years since the death of Martinů … and there will be many more no doubt. It makes a formidable list of notable anniversaries that deserve serious commemoration. Record companies don’t need reminding that this gives them an opportunity to issue or reissue commemorative sets and it is one of these that I have the good fortune to be reviewing here. However, I need to say clearly from the outset that I shall not be reviewing every quartet or even every disc. Listening to them only once would take almost 26 hours and since I believe that a minimum of four hearings are required to do any of them justice that would amount to a commitment of over one hundred hours or 12 and a half solid 8 hour days! So, please forgive me but I shall be doing a ‘dipping in and out’ review that I still hope will leave the reader with an overview that allows them to make an informed decision about purchasing these wonderful works. Please also note the individual numbers of the Naxos discs that have been issued over a number of years.

Joseph Haydn, affectionately known by his staff at Eszterháza as Papa Haydn, was more than just a father figure to those he employed. He is still known today as ‘father of the symphony, the string quartet and the classical sonata’ and though these are over-simplifications, he made such massive and innovative contributions to those genres that it is easy to understand why these titles have persisted down the centuries. Born to a wheelwright and a cook one might be forgiven for being amazed at the genius that emerged from this union. Though the term genius is all too often misused and thereby devalued, there is no doubt that it is more than justified in Haydn’s case. Perhaps equally surprising is the fact that he was not afflicted, as many geniuses are, by a volatile temper. Rather he had an affectingly mischievous streak that continued from boyhood throughout his life and which gave rise to the many amusing and humorous musical jokes that he incorporated into his works. The well known ‘Surprise’ symphony that uses a blast of sound to wake up an audience that he knew often dozed off, is but one of many devices that puts a smile on the listener’s face. In fact the element of surprise is something that recurs throughout music that is sunny yet profound as well as inspirational and optimistic.

Getting up early this morning to begin the reviews I’m choosing to start with the ‘Sun’ quartets (Op. 20 Nos. 1-6), inspired by some sun after some otherwise appallingly cold and grey weather for April. These quartets are regarded as demonstrating the full maturity of the Viennese Classical style and the string quartet itself. Disc 10 covers nos. 1-3 and the first of the set, Op. 20 no.1 (Hob.III:31) is indeed worthy of the subtitle ‘Sun’ beginning with a theme taken by the first violin, joined by viola before the second violin and cello join in with new themes and then shared equally by all four players. The whole movement is bright and breezy. The second movement continues the uplifting nature with a delightful Minuet and Trio. The slow movement marked Affetuoso e sostenuto is gorgeous, helped by Hadyn’s wonderfully affecting way of using the cello’s deep and resonant sounds to fabulous effect against the ‘thinner’ violins and viola. The quartet ends in upbeat mode with a Presto that crams so many wonderful thematic strands into its brief span. Quartet No. 2 by contrast begins in a sober mood with the cello leading, the second violin later taking up the central development section with a series of fast and furious semiquavers. The slow movement in C minor comes second and continues the sober theme leading into the Minuet in C major with its unusual drone effect. Then comes the final Fugue - a movement of an amazingly inventive nature and ingenious concept with its main theme appearing later in the movement as an inversion. Once again it has to be remembered that the string quartet as a genre was in its very infancy at this point in musical history which makes Haydn’s music all the more incredible in its breadth and scope at such an early stage in its development. The fact that he could pour out as many quartets as he did is simply mind-blowing - pure genius at work with a vengeance! The final quartet on this disc has lovely first and second movements but is particularly remarkable for its fairly long third movement marked Poco adagio which has some beautifully wrought themes of amazing complexity and rhythmic variety. The three movements are all slow, rounded off by a final lively rondo, a delightful conclusion to the third ‘Sun’ quartet.

I’d now like to move on to disc 12 and the so-called ‘Russian Quartets’ known as such purely because they were performed in the presence of the Russian Grand Duke Paul, later Tsar Paul II, and his wife, who were visiting Vienna under the names of the Count and Countess Von Norden. Haydn was also there to gauge their reaction which I trust was favourable. It certainly should have been as these are wonderfully inventive examples which give endless pleasure. Completed in 1781 the set comprises six quartets, three of them on this disc, the first, Op. 33 No.5 having the subtitle ‘How do you do?’ suggested by the initial figure. The second movement, in G minor, is lovely and dance-like - but then a large number could be so described! The scherzo returns to G major with a trio in the same key, and the last movement includes a series of variations on the main theme, which reappears with a change of rhythm and pace in conclusion - a bright and breezy end to a lovely quartet. Quartet No.2 in this set will be immediately recognized I’m sure. It is known affectionately as ‘The Joke’ and begins with a particularly affecting first subject. The second movement is characteristically light-hearted and, though brief, makes its point in such a way as to remain long in the memory. Viola and cello open the Largo e sostenuto, echoed by the violins and is serious by comparison. Its middle section is of marked dynamic and rhythmic contrast leading nicely to the cheerful theme that dominates the final movement incorporating the devices that earn the quartet its nickname - a series of abrupt changes of speed coupled with a number of sudden silences and a whispered ending that finishes in the middle of a phrase. The disc is completed by Quartet No. 1 that begins in a serious manner with the first violin, accompanied by the second and echoed by the cello and a key shift to D major. The second movement - at scarcely three minutes long - is a lovely conversation between the instruments. The Andante opens with an ascending theme beautifully developed and shared among the four players. The last movement returns to the initial key of B minor and cleverly rounds off the quartet by its use of imitation of the opening figure.

Disc 13 comprises the remaining three ‘Russian Quartets’ beginning with No.3 known as ‘The Bird’. I have no idea whether Haydn intended the music to sound like a bird but if not it is remarkable that it sounds so avian. The initial theme is so reminiscent of one that it is hard to imagine Haydn achieving the musical likeness accidentally. The bird-like sound reappears in the second movement in the trills played in the trio by the first violin. The third movement is a serious sounding Adagio with the first violin responsible for increasingly elaborate embellishments which lead into the final Rondo with the other instruments taking up the first violin’s theme. The last quartet of the 6 appears next on this disc. What is the reason for arranging them in this way, all record companies do it but surely CDs allow for more accurate arrangements of works than this don’t they? Answers on a postcard please! Anyway it is another beautifully crafted and ingenious quartet that emphasizes the happy state of mind Haydn was in when this set was written. This is attributed to a liaison with the singer Luigia Polzelli, wife of the Eszterháza violinist Antonio Polzelli. The birth of a son in 1783 was thought to have resulted. The disc is rounded off with Quartet No.4 of this set. 

We move now to CD 14 - the first of two comprising the ‘Prussian’ quartets. It is interesting to read in the accompanying booklet that two years before they were written in 1787 Mozart, who had established friendly relations with Haydn, had dedicated a set of quartets to Haydn. From Haydn Mozart had drawn inspiration when composing these works. In writing this Op. 50 set Haydn shows a similar debt to Mozart. Just as jazz musicians strike creative sparks off each other when jamming together so classical composers did the same, albeit at somewhat greater distances! The influence of Mozart, it is said, shows from the very outset in these quartets since no.1 begins with an Allegro in barred C time (2/2), its first occurrence among Haydn’s quartets. These quartets were dedicated to King Frederick William II, the cello-playing king for whom Mozart had written his ‘Prussian’ quartets in 1789 after his visit to Potsdam. It was the same king to whom Beethoven looked for favour when writing his first cello sonatas in 1796. It is a sad fact that composers needed such patronage in order to survive and that, without it, a vast number of wonderful works would never have been written. How much poorer western music would have been had such composers not found such patronage. The first of the set, No.1 is introduced by the cello, seen as a tribute to the King and his favoured instrument. The second subject is derived from the first, and the repeated note becomes a feature for the entire movement. Fear not, this is no early example of minimalism - Haydn is far too inventive for that! The note introduces the central development and your brain expects it and is glad when it reappears, so satisfying is the form in which it appears. It is recapitulated at triple speed at the end of the movement. The second movement Adagio con lento is in the form of a theme and variations whilst the third movement minuet links back to the first two movements and frames a contrasting trio. This is followed by a final Vivace with several surprises playing with the listener. It promises to recall the principal theme which, eventually, it does. It is these incredibly clever, witty and musically hugely satisfying features that elevate Haydn’s quartets to the very pinnacle of music in an unassailable position along with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; the very epitome of the art of music in the purest sense. That it all seems to flow in the most musically natural way is yet another proof of Haydn’s irrefutable genius. This quartet alone is worth a King’s ransom - I wonder what Haydn actually received for it! By the way, for some reason the two discs that comprise the ‘Prussian’ quartets have them all in order 1-6 so I find it even more difficult to understand why it cannot always be thus. Perhaps there’s some technical reason involved.

CD 15 opens with String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op. 50 No.4 (Hob.III:47) with a strongly stated theme which reappears after a contrapuntal interlude. The slow movement has a simply stated theme that sings its way through, This has earned the movement the nickname ‘The Dream’. The Minuet is in F sharp minor and is followed by a final fugue, also in the same key. This ensures the maintenance of the poignancy and which is rooted in all that has gone before. The penultimate quartet of the set is itself known as ‘A dream’ and is in total contrast to its predecessor. Its opening statement is given to the two violins with a simple idea which is restated in sequence before being replaced with even more rapidly played motifs. The second, slow movement is very dreamlike carrying you away on its delightfully expressed themes. What an antidote to the trials of life it is to put music of this beauty on at the end of a day and feeling the weights being lifted from your shoulders! There is a monothematic connection between the F major Minuet and its F minor Trio. The quartet ends with a speedy vivace in 6/8 time which rounds off a wonderfully satisfying quartet. The last of the Prussian Quartets is nicknamed ‘The Frog’ from the alternating of strings on the same note found in the last movement, It’s an enjoyable little device from the endlessly inventive and humorous Haydn.

CDs 16-19 are of the ‘Tost Quartets’ and the naming of them as such is due to a story that made me shake my head in disbelief and wonder. The Tost to whom the entire dozen were eventually dedicated was the man who led the second violins in Haydn’s orchestra in Eszterhàza for five years (1783-1788). Leaving for Paris in 1788 he promptly sold the quartets for publication plus two new Haydn symphonies. What gave him the right to include the symphonies you might be tempted to ask but it comes as no surprise when you learn that he had proposed - to whom one might ask - a scheme to pirate compositions that belonged to the Prince! He later returned to Vienna, marrying a housekeeper working for the Prince, becoming a prosperous cloth-merchant. Nine years later we learn that he approached Spohr with idea of buying the exclusive rights over Spohr’s chamber music compositions for a period of three years in order to gain entrance to the best houses in Vienna. This would in turn facilitate the conclusion of business contracts. He received Spohr’s agreement to this based on a sliding scale dependent on the number of instruments involved. The result of this was two string quartets and a nonet. Following Haydn’s dedication of the second set (Op. 64) to Tost in 1790 Mozart also wrote his last two string quintets for him! One didn’t always need to be a patron in order to commission great music just a canny devil! All the quartets are of the quality we have come to expect from Haydn and there are no disappointments. True genius is the facility to have great works drip from your pen with seemingly minimum effort. The first set of Op. 55 includes No.2 known as ‘The Razor’ after the anecdote that shaving himself with a poor razor Haydn was heard to exclaim that he would give his best quartet for a pair of decent razors. Immediately the English publisher John Bland, who was at Eszterhàza on a visit, rushed out and presented him shortly after with a pair of English razors. He was rewarded with the quartet Op. 55, No.2. Lucky Mr. Bland! The second set of three from Op. 64 includes the well known ‘Lark’ quartet (Op. 64, No 5) so called due to the initial entry of the first violin in the high register.

Discs 20 and 21 cover the ‘Apponyi’ Quartets, so-called because they were written in 1793 and dedicated to Count Anton Georg Apponyi. This was the very man who first encouraged the 25 year old Beethoven to try writing a string quartet, though it would be some years before he did. There are six quartets in this set, the last of which, known as ‘The Rider’ or ‘The Horseman’, is a good representation of them. Opening with a theme that immediately explains the nickname it is yet further proof of Haydn’s seemingly boundless inventiveness and his genuine genius for creativity. Gorgeous themes appear to flow like a musical river and the slow movement is extremely moving - just the kind of music I choose when I am trying to come to terms with loss. The Minuet and Trio, however, soon bring one out of sombre mood and back into the light. The quartet closes with a movement that brings back the idea of a rider and is sure to make any listener smile which is something that Haydn is always able to do. Full of dynamic contrast and variety the quartet is rounded off in this Allegro con brio with a conclusion in G major.

The ‘Erdödy’ quartets covered by CDs 22 and 23 are Haydn’s Op. 76 set. They feature some of the most well known of all Haydn’s string quartet themes, including what we know as Germany’s national anthem, Das Lied der Deutschen which has the words ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles’  as its opening words and first stanza refrain. This appears in the second movement of his quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No.3 (Hob.III:77). It’s simply beautiful, whatever connotations it may have taken on in the past through misuse. Haydn had been impressed with England’s ‘God Save the King’ and wrote what has since become known as the ‘Emperor’s Hymn’ for the birthday of Emperor Franz. The third movement of this quartet is equally well known as is a perfect counter to the sombre nature of the ‘Emperor’s Hymn’, a merry and playful theme.

Disc number 23 begins with what is surely the best known of all of Haydn’s string quartet themes - the opening bars of his quartet in B flat major, Op. 76 No.4 (Hob.III:78) ‘Sunrise’. That unmistakable and gorgeous evocation of the sunrise is entrusted to the first violin whose ascending phrase really makes you sit up and take notice. The Adagio opens with an equally beautiful melody while the minuet also begins with an extremely well recognized theme, a witty and jaunty tune that contrasts greatly with the dark sounds of the previous movement. The finale cleverly anticipates its own ending which is another brilliant conclusion to a superb quartet that is perfectly formed and hugely successful in every way.

Disc 24 comprises two of what had been meant to have been a set of six, commissioned by Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz to whom these two are dedicated. They were the last to be completed by Haydn, in 1799. It has been speculated that the reason Haydn failed to complete the set was because of the radical changes in the string quartet form hinted at in Beethoven’s Op. 18 set also written for Lobkowitz. Beethoven however was uneasy at seeming to challenge his old teacher let alone rival him. In any event only these two were completed and are known as the ‘Lobkowitz Quartets’. The first (Quartet in G Major, Op. 77 No.1) again opens with a tune many will already know well. The Adagio is, as always, a complete and sober contrast to the merry opening, full of dark sounds from the cello which are so appealing. The minuet is said to have Hungarian or Croatian (!) connotations which I have to say I could not discern with any certainty though the geographical borders were so fluid at the time it must also have had a influence on music too. The finale, a lovely presto, is also a well known tune. I’m sure Haydn lovers will immediately recognize it. The entire movement is a theme and variations. 

CD number 25, the very last of the set of Haydn String Quartets, is ‘The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ’, Op. 51 (Hob.III:50-6) from 1786. Haydn had been invited by a canon of Cádiz to provide music for a Lenten devotion and this work was the result. The bishop would announce each of the seven last words of Christ, followed by a short sermon and descend from the pulpit to prostrate himself before the altar whilst the music was played. Originally scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets and drums, with four horns and strings, Haydn made the string quartet version only three days after completing the fuller orchestral version in February 1787. It was the Seven Last Words that cemented his international reputation at the age of 54 - about time! Comprising seven sonatas, between an introduction and finale, it is an unsurprisingly sombre work as befits its subject but still packed with beauty and invention. For those amongst us, including myself, who like their music reflective, this delivers gravity enough for anyone and something lighter comes as a welcome break. Superb moments occur throughout but I was particularly taken with a section beginning around 5 minutes into Sonata no.3 (track 4) when the cello has an especially poignant role to play.

In 1803, feeling his age and increasingly frail he conducted his last concert which was of the Seven Last Words. In that same year he wrote the second and third movements of what was going to be his last string quartet but, regrettably, he never completed it. Strange to contemplate how a composer manages to write the second and third movements of a quartet when the laymen among us imagine that movements surely follow a logical progression in which each section grows out of, or at least, is influenced by, the preceding one. A great loss for us in any event as there is much promise in those two movements.

Coming to the end of these CDs and therefore, of this review is like the end of a journey. We reviewers are extremely fortunate as we have good reason to listen more closely than we might otherwise do to the music we write about and this process has been a wonderfully enriching one. The music is uniformly excellent and at Naxos’s bargain price makes possessing these superb works affordable. To make this collection even more desirable the playing is superlative, allowing the music to shine as befits the status that the quartets have achieved. Recorded between 1989 and 2000, the Kodaly Quartet (which has seen three of its members change during those years), plays with a shared intelligence that makes for thrilling listening and the most rewarding musical experience. It is impossible to put into words how highly I think of this set but suffice it to say that nothing could persuade me to live without it.

Steve Arloff

see also review by Gwyn Parry-Jones 


Disk listing (Available separately - see bracketed numbers)
1. String Quartets Op. 1, Nos. 1- 4 (8.550398)
2. String Quartets Op. 1 Nos. 0 and 6 and Op. 2 Nos. 1 and 2 (8.550399)
3. String Quartets Op. 42 and Op. 2, Nos. 4 and 6 (8.550732)
4. String Quartets Op. 2, Nos. 3 and 5 / Op. 3, Nos. 1-2 (8.555703)
5. String Quartets Op. 3, Nos. 3 - 6 (8.555704)
6. String Quartets, Op. 9, Nos. 1, 3 and 4 (8.550786)
7. String Quartets Op. 9, Nos. 2, 5 and 6 (8.550787)
8. String Quartets Op. 17, Nos. 1, 2 and 4 (8.550853)
9. String Quartets Op. 17, Nos. 3, 5 and 6 (8.550854)
10. String Quartets Op. 20, Nos. 1- 3, 'Sun Quartets' (8.550701)
11. String Quartets Nos. 23, 24 and 27, 'Sun Quartets' (8.550702)
12. String Quartets Op. 33, Nos. 1, 2 and 5 (8.550788)
13. String Quartets Op. 33, Nos. 3, 4 and 6 (8.550789)
14. String Quartets Nos. 36-38 (8.553983)
15. String Quartets Op. 50, Nos. 4 - 6, 'Prussian' (8.553984)
16. String Quartets Op. 54, Nos. 1- 3 (8.550395)
17. String Quartets Op. 55, Nos. 1 - 3 (8.550397)
18. String Quartets Op. 64, Nos. 1- 3 (8.550673)
19. String Quartets Op. 64, Nos. 4 - 6 (8.550674)
20. String Quartets Op. 71, Apponyi Quartets (8.550394)
21. String Quartets Op. 74, Nos. 1- 3 (8.550396)
22. String Quartets Op. 76, Nos. 1- 3 (8.550314)
23. String Quartets Op. 76, Nos. 4 - 6 (8.55031)
24. String Quartets Op. 77, Nos. 1- 2 (8.553146)
25. String Quartets Opp. 103 and 51, '7 Last Words of Jesus Christ' (8.550346)

 


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