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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Six String Quartets, Op.20
No.1 in E flat major [25:19]
No.2 in C major [23:06]
No.3 in G minor [25:49]
No.4 in D major [29:21]
No.5 in F minor [25:29]
No.6 in A major [20:24]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Hélène Clément (viola); John Myerscough (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, 7-9 October 2013 and 2-4 December 2013.
CHANDOS CHAN10831(2) [74:32+75:32]

In 1772 the forty year old Haydn composed the world’s first true string quartets, this set of six Op. 20. There had been quartets before, by Haydn and others, but these are the ones where we first hear throughout the essential quality of a “conversation between four intelligent people” as Goethe put it, rather than a work dominated by the first violin. The range of expression across the six works, and the innovative textures, are unprecedented. Donald Tovey wrote of these works “ With Op.20 the historical development of Haydn’s quartets reaches its goal … and no later set of six quartets, not even Op.76, is … so uniformly weighty and so varied in substance as Op.20.” These works are thus a milestone in music history, much more significant — and more consistently superb — than say Beethoven’s Op.18 set, which seems to be played and recorded more often. Hence it is a major task for young players to record them, and the Doric Quartet here rises triumphantly to the challenge. The disc cover has a discreet “volume 1” in the corner, so presumably this is the beginning of a complete cycle of Haydn quartets.

The Doric Quartet is still sometimes referred to as if it is a relative newcomer, but it was formed in 1998, won international prizes in 2008 and has been recording for Chandos since 2010. Many of its previous highly-praised Chandos discs (Schubert; Korngold; Korngold; Schumann; Schumann; Walton; Chausson) have a cover photo showing four young men in suits and ties, but this one has a new look - three jacketless men in open-necked white shirts, and a woman, the viola player Hélène Clément. The still photos and the videos on their official website show only this new line-up now, and it seems on this evidence that the show goes on as far as quality is concerned. The excellent new violist has apparently blended in very well (‘blend’ being le mot juste for a quartet), and the widely admired characteristics of the Doric’s playing are on abundant display here.

The opening Allegro Moderato of Op.20/1 immediately shows off both the new Haydn quartet manner and the old Doric qualities. The very look of the music on the page suggests the independence of each part, with a frequently shifting and inventive quartet texture but using very few melodic elements. Hans Keller’s great book on the Haydn quartets points to the movement’s “unprecedented motivic economy” and the “intense thematicism of the entire movement”. In this movement we have the Haydn paradox – he is often claimed to be an intellectual or cerebral composer but the result is often easy-going, even light-hearted and engaging. The Doric gets this paradox just right, revealing the compositional sophistication without jeopardising the genial buttonholing mood. They close the quartet very effectively too, as although the scuttling presto finale is mostly piano, they manage also to observe the decrescendo and diminuendo markings without sounding fussy.

The second quartet of the set, in C major, has an adagio marking for the C minor slow movement, and the Doric gets the tempo – and the feeling - about right. The opening unison registers firmly without being too fierce or quasi-orchestral, and the ensuing long cantilena unfolds with the right degree of aria-like expressiveness and flexibility from the leader. The vibrato is kept to a minimum not just here but in general throughout the six works, which gives something of a ‘period’ feel even without period instruments.

The three fugal finales, in quartets 2, 5 and 6, are a famous feature of Op. 20, not least for each being marked to be played quietly almost throughout – “sempre sotto voce”. This was contrary to the usual practice of the day, and as well as imparting a fleeting evanescent quality it encourages close listening, especially in the final fugue of number 2 which has four subjects (“Fuga a quattro soggetti”). The Doric dispatch these exhilarating finales with virtuoso impetus and a keen response to the constantly shifting polyphonic texture.

The F minor number 5 is one work in the opus that is sometimes anthologized in selections of ‘great Haydn quartets’ (like the Emerson Quartet’s ‘The Haydn Project’ discs on Deutsche Grammophon) and here we can see why. The Doric bring out its searching, almost tragic nature, especially in the wonderful first movement which at 11:14 is the longest of the whole set. In the Doric’s hands the opening is a brooding almost proto-romantic statement, and that conception is illustrated by their approach to dynamics. When they return to the opening upon repeating the exposition they replace the marked piano with a definite mezzoforte – which has its own emotional logic, emphasizing a certain implacable quality in the music.

Overall these are interpretations with a strong profile – the music always provokes a response from the players, beyond the mere presentation of what is in the score. The Doric can even be dramatic, as if aware that this is the period of Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) and the remarkable year of Haydn’s splendid symphonies numbers 45-47. They do not assume that this music can somehow play itself if one just attends to the score. Not everyone approves of this – BBC Music Magazine, while generally admiring, refers to an “over-expressive approach”. Conversely, Harriet Smith on the BBC’s CD Review broadcast lauded that very freedom and expressiveness, finding now that some admired predecessors to the Doric can sound a bit too “well-mannered”.

For me such music should be strongly characterized, even if that involves some risk-taking in tempi, longer pauses, stronger attacks, and altered dynamics. So I can certainly enthuse about this release to those not already wedded to another recording, or to a strict period instrument approach or a more elegant and bewigged style. The 2011 London Haydn Quartet on Hyperion, and the much older Quatuor Mosaïques now on Naive (a 1993 Gramophone award-winner), still have many admirers and are easily available and inexpensive. Whenever I want to hear something from Op. 20, I shall probably now alternate between this new Doric issue and the Mosaïques – but surely every lover of chamber music should have at least one recording of these wonderful pieces.

Roy Westbrook


 

 




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