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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Six String Quartets, Op.64 (1790)
No.1 in C major [25:52]
No.2 in F minor [21:07]
No.3 in B flat major [27:35]
No.4 in G major [23:52]
No.5 in D major 'The Lark' [21:28]
No.6 in E flat major [20:24]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Hélène Clément (viola); John Myerscough (cello))
rec. 2017, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN10971(2) [74:52 + 66:48]

The Opus 64 Quartets were composed at a particularly interesting time in Haydn’s life. In 1790 he left the employ of the Esterházy family, after some thirty years, and at the same time his music had been gaining an international currency, enabling him to take up commissions from sources such as the prestigious Concerts Spirituels in Paris. However, the string quartets of Opus 54 and Opus 55, comprising two sets of three, and Opus 64 set of six, came into being as the result of a link rather nearer to home. This was the composer's continuing friendship with the violinist Johann Tost.

Tost had been a prominent member of the Esterházy orchestra, who had then taken up a career as a merchant in Vienna, due to family connections. The twelve quartets he commissioned from Haydn all encourage attention on the first violin, as though the composer had made a special response to skills that he knew well. In this way he was able to extend towards a new approach towards a medium in which he already excelled. If this is generally true in Opus 64, it is most obviously so in the Fifth of the quartets, which bears the nickname ‘The Lark’ because of the role of the first violin. However, it is not simply the radiant playing of Alex Redington that captures the attention here, but rather the subtlety of the textures and part writing, aided by admirably clear Chandos sound.

Again and again, the choice of tempi in these quartets show a keen awareness of how Haydn was advancing the quartet formula and how he was able to bring an individual personality to each composition within that same four-movement plan. The exact descriptions given to the movements are always telling, and they are always justified by the approach the Doric players bring to the music. Thus the first movement Allegro moderato of No. 1 contrasts so readily with the Vivace assai of No. 6.

The performances have been thoroughly prepared, while at the same time generating that essential spontaneity that lies at the heart of Haydn’s chamber music. Of this phenomenon there is no finer example than the opening movement of No. 2, Allegro spiritoso. There is a particular emphasis on the tortuous contour of the principal theme, with its ever-widening intervals, proceeding from semitone to sixth. Then to form the climax of the movement this theme appears in octaves on all four instruments, and the Dorics bring a richly rewarding sonority.

Of course the quality of the sound an ensemble creates is at its most noticeable in slower-paced music; thus the Adagio second movement of Quartet No. 4 features an extended violin cantabile, to the extent that it is almost a romance for violin and accompaniment. Yet the phrasing tends to be asymmetrical, with offbeat notes frequently emphasised. The central minore section becomes more inward and exploratory, and when the original version of the aria returns it seems more lyrical still. All this most sensitively delivered here.

The Doric Quartet has risen to become one of the leading ensembles of our times, and hearing these excellent Haydn performances it is not hard to understand why.

Terry Barfoot


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