The CD opens with the Divertimento in C major or, if you prefer, Haydn’s String Quartet No. 6. The Fitzwilliam String Quartet in this live recording from 2001 plunge you straight into its spirited, cheerily raw and energetic momentum. Soft and loud phrases are quickly exchanged, relieved by the rare balm of a sustained top D from first violin (tr. 1 0:16). In the first movement’s second section it’s a G the first violin sustains but now (1:20) Lucy Russell permits herself a trill and in the repeat (1:59) a little more elaborate ornamentation.
I compared the recording by the Kodaly Quartet made in 1991 on modern instruments (Naxos 8.550399). With regard to timing there’s little difference except the Fitzs have the advantage in observing the second half repeats in the first and last movements. In the first movement the Kodalys are as energetic as the Fitzs but plainer in presentation, ornamentation and a touch squarer in rhythm. In the second movement Minuet in which the first violin takes the lead the Fitzs stylishly savour the joy and spaciousness of the dance. Its Trio as a contrast is somewhat primly crisp and pointed, but again nicely garnished with ornamentation. Here too the Kodalys are plainer, though this does make for a less self-conscious Trio.
The central third movement is an extended melodic display by muted first violin to pizzicato accompaniment. A wide range is used and there are plenty of decorative effects including a touch more ornamentation in the Fitzs’ repeat of the first half, the second half not being repeated in either recording. For the Fitzs Lucy Russell presents the movement as a winsome, joyous song, an exquisite celebration of life. For the Kodalys Attila Falvay finds a more distant, musing quality. This is not as sweet as Russell and without as delicate a pizzicato accompaniment, probably because of a more resonant church recording location.
The fourth movement is a bracing second Minuet with a Trio in which the Fitzs enjoy the rather gawky exploration of the grimmer possibilities of C minor after C major. Their Minuet has more spring and pep than the Hungarians and the dark grained texture and dynamic contrasts of their Trio are more subtly revealed. A breezy and purposeful finale finds the first violin firmly supported in various ingenious ways. The Fitzs’ performance throughout is both lively and assured, with more sheer sparkle and animation. The Fitzs’ use of period instruments brings an added piquancy.
The second work on this CD is String Quartet No. 70, Haydn’s op. 71 no. 2. This is a far more sophisticated composition. It begins with a brief introduction, played here with a judicious element of spaciousness and great warmth. The following sprightly Allegro is notable for the conspicuous involvement of all the instruments in its projection and its sheer variety of melody, rhythm and mood in an exposition which seems to have infinite span. I compared a live concert recording by the Lindsays made in 1987 (Resonance CDRSB 407). Here too in the first movement it’s only the Fitzs who offer the bonus of a second half repeat.
The Fitzs’ presentation is cheerily darting and has more lilt, flexibility and spontaneity than the stricter, more propulsive Lindsays. There is more contrast between Adagio introduction and Allegro main body from the Lindsays but this creates arguably overmuch formality at the outset. I prefer the warmer, more flowing Fitzwilliam approach. I also find more telling their handling of those brief moments of comparative repose, such as when the first violin suddenly has a semibreve after running semiquavers (tr. 6, 1:34).
The slow movement offers a degree of repose in its gentle lyricism but that in turn can be capricious and heartfelt so as listener you’re required to remain alert. At least this is the Fitzs’ take on its Adagio cantabile: clear-eyed, ambivalent, decorative. It’s like the slow movement of a violin concerto as the first violin often leads, yet with the other instruments, especially the cello, providing their own solo contributions and varieties of accompanying texture. So the lightness of the descending triplet semiquavers at the end of the second phrase (tr. 7, 0:25) is notable, but these are indeed marked staccato. Similarly I can point to the relative pace of the cello solo at 0:58, the restraint of its rising phrases in imitation of the first violin from 1:09 and subtler mirroring patterns from 1:38. The Fitzs’ playing has variation and concentration without departing from the classical foundation. This approach is more classical and objective than the more measured (6:43 against 4:56), romantic and subjective Lindsays. Their account has a softer focus, smoother flow and more Schubertian expressiveness. The Fitzs make less of a contrast of the second section (2:14) but the movement’s close is exquisitely pointed.
The Minuet from the Fitzs is buoyantly vaulting with a real kick to it. The effect is very striking, like galumphing on a rocking-horse, pleasingly offset by a relaxed, suave Trio where the melody is savoured. The Lindsays seem more polite and conventional in comparison in the Minuet but bring out the cross-rhythms of the Trio more.
The finale provides a genial rondo, with a stormy episode in D minor, return to the D major rondo theme and in the Fitzs’ performance an even calmer state than the opening before a fast close. The Fitzs treat the movement in mellow, somewhat valedictory fashion, though with a spirited episode (1:14) for contrast, where the Lindsays go for a more humorously pointed approach.
The final work on this CD is String Quartet No. 82, or op. 77 no. 2, Haydn’s last completed quartet. The opening movement is a formal but also witty, conversational discourse. Its clean-cut first theme and exposition nevertheless contains the seeds of disquiet, beginning with its insistent monotone quavers (tr. 10, 0:38). A gradually increasingly tense undercurrent that evolves from this erupts in a surprisingly frenzied development realized by the Fitzs, in particular the first violin’s climactic entry at 4:59. In the meantime their warm second theme (1:09) has provided a pleasing contrast. The expressive, musical and psychological possibilities of the development are wonderfully transparent. The effect is that of seeing a character transformed in different moods, brought back to the original one yet appearing changed in the light of experience.
Here I compared a 1989 studio recording by the period instrument ensemble Quatuor Mosaïques (Astrée E 8800). Their first movement is more reflective, less convivial than the Fitzs, with a more dominant first violin. Their second theme is more gracious and courtly but less warm. They achieve a more cowering, sad journey to the development through a more telling contrast of soft transition and loud follow-up than that made by the Fitzs at 3:42 and 3:50 respectively. But this is atypical: with QM the music is generally more objectively distilled.
The Fitzs’ second movement Minuet is rumbustious, in effect a scherzo, balanced by a shadowy Trio whose warmth, however, recalls that of the first movement’s second theme. QM’s Minuet has a neater but rather surgical friskiness followed by a gentle but less shadowy, romantic Trio than the Fitzs. The latter’s slow movement is homely, meditative. It offers a gently worked intricacy of comforting obbligato accompaniment and seamless, variation like interchange between D major rondo and episodes in A major (2:05) and D minor (3:39). Second violin and cello sing its melody after the first violin’s initial presentation, very strikingly when the cello has it beneath the first violin’s cascades of demisemiquavers (4:18). But it’s the expressive sharing and integration, well conveyed by the Fitzs, that’s more important than the decoration. QM’s treatment of the slow movement is considerably more measured, timing at 9:29 in comparison with the Fitzs’ 7:09, producing a sensitive but for me over-calculated meditation. Every texture is clear and nuance of pointing beautifully achieved. But the Fitzs bring a stronger sense of progression, a vital as well as intricate pattern, a late Haydn celebration of life to match that of the slow movement of op. 1 no. 6 heard on track 3 of the Fitzs’ CD.
The finale is one of purposive dancing of a Bach like floridity, brilliance and concentration, but rather lighter articulation, especially in the Fitzs’ performance. A little faster (5:35 compared with the Fitzs’ 6:01), QM emphasise the witty pointing more and while firm in tone are also light-hearted in atmosphere.
To sum up, the Fitzwilliam Quartet give faithful accounts of these Haydn quartets, full of character and expression, enhanced by the zip of spontaneity and tang of period instrument tone and style. In most respects I preferred them to the three performances I chose for comparison. The recording, originally issued on Dunelm DRD0172 in 2001, has great immediacy yet is suitably intimate, close but not claustrophobic.