This 15 CD release from Music and Arts of the Schneider String Quartet’s 1950s Haydn Recordings will be the answer to a prayer for many chamber music collectors. They were the brainchild of the Haydn Society, founded after World War II in Boston Massachusetts by a group of young American scholars, including the renowned musicologist and Haydn specialist H.C. Robbins Landon (1926-2009). One of the Society’s aims was to produce recordings of the composer’s works on the recently developed LP.
Alexander Schneider (1908-1993) had been a member of the Budapest String Quartet from 1933-1944, playing second violin to Josef Roismann, who was considered by many to be his musical inferior. Schneider’s brother Mischa was the cellist, having joined the group in 1930. Fast forward to 1950, and Alexander founded the Prades Festival at which he gathered younger colleagues to perform Haydn quartets. On the basis of this he was approached by the Haydn Society to bring a group of players together to record a complete cycle of the composer’s quartets. By 1951, the group had formed with Schneider playing first violin, Isidore Cohen second, Karen Tuttle, viola and Madeline Foley, cello, later to be replaced by Hermann Busch, brother of Adolf. As well as the recording, between 1951-1952, sixteen concerts were arranged and given to present the complete cycle to the public.
Sadly, three years into the recording project, the Society’s money ran out and the cycle remains incomplete. The quartets not recorded include Opp. 9, 54, 55, 64, 71 and 74 – a total of twenty-four. The present set does offer the first commercial release of movements 1 and 1V of Op. 64 No. 1, compiled from an unedited master tape of what was to be the last recording session before funds dried up: 5 October 1954 in New York. Also included are Nos. 3 and 5 from Op. 2, which Haydn conceived as sextets with two horns. Here the Quartet are joined by Weldon and Kathleen Wilber.
Whilst it is regrettable that the Schneider Quartet never set down the Op. 9 quartets, we do have the Op. 17 set, composed two years later in 1770-71. Listening to these glorious performances one cannot help but marvel at the imagination and resourcefulness these works offer. I love the freshness and spontaneity of the opening Theme and Variation movement of No. 3 in E flat major, played as though freshly composed. Then there’s the tenderness and ardent expression of the Adagio cantabile of No. 4 in C minor.
The six Op.33 are less severe than their predecessors, the Op. 20. Haydn announced that they were written in ‘a completely new and special style’. He had certainly reached a higher level of maturity, yet the works have a simplicity of form marked by succinctness and concise thematic material. They are certainly more conversational in character. The Schneiders judge the mood to perfection, offering warm, intimate readings with a studio acoustic — venues are not given — sympathetic to this sense of shared intimacy. This is especially evident in the slow movements of No. 2 ‘The Joke’ and No. 3 ‘The Bird’. They also bring wit and humour to the finales of both these quartets. In the finale of No. 4 in B flat major, no one can fail to be won over by their capricious lightheartedness.
I am particularly drawn to the Op. 50 Quartets, perhaps not as popular as some of the others. Despite the hints of Sturm und Drang, as in the opening of No. 4 in F sharp minor, there is plenty of laughter and joie de vivre elsewhere, as in the finale of No. 6 ‘The Frog’. I was particularly impressed by the detailed phrasing and dynamics the players bring to these scores. They certainly have this music in their blood.
The Schneider Quartet capture the swagger of the march-like rhythm in the opening movement of Op. 77, No. 1 in G major, grabbing your attention from the outset. The lyrical Adagio is eloquently phrased and the Scherzo is played with rhythmic energy and robust syncopations. The extrovert finale has a lissom charm.
The only disappointment is Op. 20 No. 4. The first movement seems lifeless and there is no joy to be found in the performance. The second movement, a set of variations, is too slowly paced and lacks forward momentum. The Schneiders make up for it in the finale, however, which is crisply articulated and delivered with panache.
Lani Spahr has done a sterling job with these digital restorations, using both the original Haydn Society master tapes, supplemented from LP sources. For all concerned with this venture, it has been a true labour of love. Tully Potter’s excellent scholarly annotations provide informative background and context. For those wishing to explore further, an added bonus is the original LP liner-notes by Marion M. Scott and Karl Geiringer, which can be accessed on the
Music and Arts website
I would rank the cycle, though incomplete, alongside the wonderful Tatrai Quartet on Hungaroton. If you don’t mind mono sound, this set offers the listener many rewards. These spontaneous and inspirational readings are both a delight and an enriching experience. All I can say is, go for it.
CD 1 [71:50]: Op. 1 No. “0” in E flat major; Op. 1 No. 1 in Bb major “La Chasse”; Op. 1 No. 2 in E flat major; Op. 1 No. 3 in D major.
CD 2 [63:09]: Op. 1 No. 4 in G major; Op. 1 No. 6 in C major; Op. 2 No. 1 in A major*.
CD 3 [63:06]: Op. 2 No. 2 in E major*; Op. 2 No. 3 in E flat major* (Weldon Wilber, Kathleen Wilber (horns)); Op. 2 No. 4 in F major*.
CD 4 [79:08]: Op. 2 No. 5 in D major* (Weldon Wilber, Kathleen Wilber (horns)); Op. 2 No. 6 in Bb major*; Op. 17 No. 1 in E major; Op. 17 No. 2 in F major.
CD 5 [65:20]: Op. 17 No. 3 in E flat major; Op. 17 No. 4 in C minor; Op. 17 No. 5 in G major.
CD 6 [62:13]: Op. 17 No. 6 in D major; Op. 20 No. 1 in E flat major*; Op. 20 No. 2 in C major*.
CD 7 [70:32]: Op. 20 No. 3 in G minor*; Op. 20 No. 4 in D major*; Op. 20 No. 5 in F minor*.
CD 8 [79:59]: Op. 20 No. 6 in A major*; Op. 33 No. 1 in B minor; Op. 33 No. 2 in E flat major “The Joke”; Op. 33 No. 3 in C major “The Bird”.
CD 9 [78:47]: Op. 33 No. 4 in B flat major; Op. 33 No. 5 in G major; Op. 33 No. 6 in D major; Op. 42 in D minor.
CD 10 [69:30]: Op. 50 No. 1 in B flat major; Op. 50 No. 2 in C major; Op. 50 No. 3 in E flat major.
CD 11 [65:10]: Op. 50 No. 4 in F sharp minor; Op. 50 No. 5 in F major “The Dream”; Op. 50 No. 6 in D major “The Frog”.
CD 12 [65:58]: Op. 51 “The Seven Last Words of The Savior on the Cross”; Op. 64 No. 1 in C major* (movements I and IV only). First commercial release. Compiled from an unedited master tape from sessions on Oct. 5, 1954 in New York.
CD 13 [68:59]: Op. 76 No. 1 in G major*; Op. 76 No. 2 in D minor “Quinten”*; Op. 76 No. 3 in C major “Emperor”*.
CD 14 [69:31]: Op. 76 No. 4 in B flat major “Sunrise”*; Op. 76 No. 5 in D major*; Op. 76 No. 6 in E flat major*.
CD 15 [63:04]: Op. 77 No. 1 in G major; Op. 77 No. 2 in F major; Op. 103 in B flat major/D minor (movements II and III only)