Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) String Quartets - Volume 2
String Quartet in G Major Op. 76 No. 1 Hob. III:75 [24:35]
String Quartet in D Minor Op. 76 No. 2 Hob. III:76 "Fifths" [22:52]
String Quartet in C Major Op. 76 No. 3 Hob. III:77 "Emperor" [29:11]
String Quartet in B-Flat Major Op. 76 No. 4 Hob. III:78 "Sunrise" [25:21]
String Quartet in D Major Op. 76 No. 5 Hob. III:79 [20:17]
String Quartet in E-Flat Major Op. 76 No. 6 Hob. III:80 [24:34]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Hélène Clément (viola); John Myerscough (cello))
rec. June/July, 2015, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk,UK CHANDOS CHAN10886(2) [76:44 + 70:16]
This is the second volume in the Doric String Quartet’s series of Haydn String Quartets, following their fine recording of Opus 20. Opus 76 was the composer’s last full set of six string quartets. Written in 1796-97 and published in 1799, they had been commissioned by Count Erdödy (who kept them for himself for a while, hence the delayed publication). This is the period of Die Schöpfung and some of the late masses, and the quartets are all of the same calibre as the vocal works. I might go as far as to say that, if you wanted to own just one publication of Haydn’s quartets – though I have never met anyone so self-denying - it should be the very varied set that make up his Op.76. Robbins Landon, in volume four of his magnificent five-volume study of Haydn, says “What is new in the most profound sense about these quartets is the scope of Haydn’s language and the range of his vision.”
The Doric approach is set out at the start of No.1, agreeably easy-going in manner where necessary but also strongly committed and spirited (the marking is allegro con spirito). The adagio’s sostenuto character is full of feeling here, its mezza voce marking reflected in a breathing quality to the quite full string texture of this movement. Indeed they have a searching way with slow movements throughout. The third movement, though still called a minuet, has been called the “first scherzo in Haydn” and the vigorous playing supports the idea of Beethoven’s possible influence, and the finale has all the (unexpected) minor-key turbulence one could want. One hears precisely why Robbins Landon calls it “the greatest Haydn finale since the Farewell Symphony”.
That intense and driven quality is heard again in the D minor opening movement of the second quartet. The Doric make the contrasts very bold, and don’t worry too much about keeping everything within the bounds of any buttoned-up notions of ‘classical good taste’. The ensuing siciliano (6/8) and the “witches’ minuet” (as it’s called in Germany) demonstrate the same refusal to pull any musical punches, when the music itself is so full of surprising invention. The recording, close and wide-ranging, only occasionally fierce, aids and abets the Doric’s insistence on interpretations that leap from the speakers. If you like to “relax’ to discs of string quartets, this might not be for you.
The excellent booklet notes by Dean Sutcliffe speak of the combination in these works of “learned and rustic elements” and the Doric delivers on both fronts. In No.3 (“The Emperor”) the forte then piano contrast within the opening bars is well observed, and in the drone passage they are very rustic indeed; there is no sense here of some bewigged aristocrat decorously playing at being from below stairs. It rather more evokes the tankard-swilling and woozily swaying real thing. In the famous “Emperor’s Hymn” slow movement the players do their very best to characterise each of the – heresy alert – rather dull variations on the famous tune.
Quartets 5 and 6 of the set are just as splendidly realized throughout, but the main interpretative sticking point is the first movement of the “Sunrise”, No. 4 in B flat. This is the one which Hans Keller called “among the greatest of the great”, and Robbins Landon considered “perhaps the greatest of Op.76”, adding it had “one of the greatest openings in chamber music”. The three lower instruments sustain a tonic chord while the first violin plays a rising theme, rather like the sun breaking gradually through clouds. “Allegro con spirito” reads the tempo marking, but this speed emerges, as the first twenty-one bars have an implied slower pace, with the ‘sunrise’ theme in crochets and quavers, until the leader’s rushing semiquavers burst forth forte at bar 22 with a proper allegro. But the Doric takes that opening section very slowly indeed, so it sounds like an adagio introduction, rather than the start of the movement proper. That very broad almost static tempo, leading to a hectic fast section makes too violent a disjunction for me. These two contrasting sections repeat of course, so the movement has a start-stop feel. The result sounds rather too un-classical, the tempo and character contrasts not sufficiently integrated.
It also results in this movement – of all Haydn quartet movements – slightly outstaying its welcome. It lasts 09:14, when the others known to me, like the Amadeus, Kodaly and Tokyo quartet versions, range from 08:02 to 08:17. That extra minute which the Doric need, is entirely due to the slow pace of the first section and its returns, so it is quite a striking departure from the performing norm. Having said that, the rest of the quartet is fine, and five fully satisfying quartets out of six, or rather twenty-three movements out of twenty-four, is not a bad return, and one atypical movement cannot prevent a strong overall recommendation. I don’t know of a finer set of performances of Op.76. I might even yet come to appreciate that highly exploratory approach to the opening of No.4.