Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartets, Op. 20 ‘Sun’ (1772)
No.1 in E flat major [26:04]
No.2 in C major [26:55]
No.3 in G minor [26:54]
No.4 in D major [30:18]
No.5 in F minor [30:06]
No.6 in A major [19:59]
The London Haydn Quartet (Catherine Manson (violin); Michael Gurevich (violin); James Boyd (viola); Richard Lester (cello))
rec. 6-10 September 2010, All Saint’s Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA67877 [79:53 + 80:25]

The London String Quartet’s Haydn recordings for Hyperion have been reviewed here for Op.9, and here for Op.17, and their Op.20 is now here on yet another very generously timed ‘two CDs for the price of one’ release. My own references include that from the Naxos label with the Kodály Quartet (see review and again here), which is very good, but could be a tad more sprightly in the swifter movements, and quite a nice set from the Tátrai Quartet on the Hungaroton label. More lively than both of these but now only available via download is the Hagen Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon. Of this little handful this would be my pick for a desert island, were I to be able to get my hands on a copy.

In many ways comparisons with these recordings are tricky to justify, as the London String Quartet is very much in search of that ‘authentic’ sound, using gut strings and reduced vibrato. Of the modern recordings I have lying around, that with the Pellegrini-Quartett on the CPO label always struck me as having a softer, more gut-string kind of sound, but even this is easily trumped by the timbre of the London String Quartet. For some this may be an acquired taste, and obtaining some of the flavour of the recording in advance from the Hyperion website might be advisable, though there is much more to this set than a brief first impression might allow.

A scholarly approach is one of the aspects of this recording, and the use of the 1801 Artaria Edition of these quartets is ably justified in the booklet. “Haydn had personally overseen the new edition, making corrections and adding more dynamic and articulation markings ‘such are necessary for its proper execution.’” The argument against the ‘authenticity’ of this edition due to Haydn’s lack of access to his own manuscripts for its preparation is outweighed by the reality of circumstance. This would have represented an opportunity to update the printed edition of pieces which Haydn had been playing and heard performed for 20 years previously. Even if the additions and alterations go beyond his original intentions, they doubtlessly represent a wealth of performance experience, and the reality of the practise of the time.

The London String Quartet is a crack ensemble, with historic performance specialist Catherine Manson as its leader. Once again, taste will dictate whether you warm to this approach, but if you are looking for a view of these marvellous quartets which represents up to date thinking on how they might have sounded in Haydn’s day then you need look no further. This is by no means a dry or ‘hair shirt’ listening experience. With superb intonation, observance of dynamic shading and the shaping of phrases, this quartet creates an authoritative aura, presenting Haydn at the peak of his powers as he developed the string quartet into something with real substance and true status as a genre which went beyond light salon entertainment. If you are looking for putative ‘Sturm und Drang’ intensity then this is something you will find in relatively measured doses in these performances. Audiences in Haydn’s day would have had enough to deal with in these new pieces without having to hide behind their frilly sleeves and ‘kerchiefs in order to avoid exhibitions of raw emotion. The London String Quartet’s performances have a more ‘open’ feel than many, though while the initial sense of lower degrees of intensity might form part of your impressions of these recordings there is still plenty of excitement generated in movements such as the final Presto of the first quartet. The dramatic unison of the opening of the second movement Capriccio: Adagio of the second quartet sounds less orchestral without vibrato, and there is more shapely elegance than urgency in the repeated note accompaniment to the melodic sequence which follows. Romantic digging into the strings is held in check, though not entirely absent here and elsewhere, though is more a side-effect of dynamic extremes than an expression of heart-on-sleeve passion. There is no shortage of passion in the music itself, and with all of the surprises and expressive discoveries Haydn presents us and the players there is more than enough freshness and directness of feeling to be going on with, without extra layers of wringing from the performers.

The London String Quartet’s soft baseline dynamic and lightness of touch makes a playful delight of the Fuga which concludes the second quartet in the set, and this is a strong feature of performances which can spring Haydn’s delightful nuances and little shockers all the better for it. The darting phrases, fanfares and interrupted cadences which are a feature of the opening Allegro con spirito of the third quartet is a good case in point, the labyrinthine musical narrative at once logical, and one in which you can lose yourself entirely. The scrunchy expressive dissonances are also pointed superbly, as can be heard in the Menuetto second movement of the same quartet.

Where the first violin was very much the leader in much of Haydn’s earlier quartets, the equality of the parts in the Op.20 set is something to which the London String Quartet is very much alive. With a beautifully integrated sound as a whole, the sense of each line and that idea of ‘a conversation between four intelligent people’ is very effective here, though more in the sense of a family of four with very similar voices rather than four easily identifiable characters. This said, the contrasts between each quartet are very well stated here. Just have a listen to the way the witty and eccentric Allegretto alla zingarese and the Presto scherzando of the fourth quartet are played with daring emphasis, and set these movements against the loaded emotional minor tonalities and sighing gestures of the fifth quartet and you’ll hear what I mean. The sheer simplicity of the Adagio of the 5th quartet is heart-stopping. This kind of genuine and well defined character is more seldom found with these pieces than you might think.

The op. 20 quartets are played here in their published order rather than in their chronological sequence of composition, though Richard Wigmore in his excellent booklet notes discusses each quartet seemingly in random order. I have come to these recordings without previous experience of this quartet’s Hyperion Haydn releases, but with an awareness of Catherine Manson’s superb playing in different contexts. This set of Haydn’s Op. 20 ‘Sun’ Quartets may be one which you need to let ‘grow’ on you, but once you’ve entered, accepted and started to appreciate the worlds the London String Quartets create in this repertoire you will I hope come to appreciate these performances as much as I have. Hyperion’s excellent sound quality is the topping on a very refined and highly enjoyable listening experience, and given the generous pricing for this two disc set I easily find myself very much in the warmly supportive camp when it comes to giving a recommendation.

Dominy Clements

Authentic, and very easy to recommend.