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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
All Shall Not Die
String Quartet in D, Op.50 No.6 – “The Frog” [22:36]
String Quartet in D minor, Op.76 No.2 – “Fifths” [23:56]
String Quartet in C, Op.54 No.2 [19:08]
String Quartet in G, Op.33 No.5 – “How do you do?” [18:45]
String Quartet in F minor, Op.20 No.5 [24:52]
String Quartet in F, Op.77 No.2 [26:03]
Quatuor Hanson
rec. 2018/2019, Arras Theatre, Paris
APARTÉ AP213 [66:05 + 69:44]

This somewhat random selection of Haydn string quartets drawn from six different sets would seem to have nothing which links them or connects them to the overall title of this attractively-packaged two-disc set. That title, drawn from Horace, is to be found inscribed on Haydn’s tomb-stone in Vienna, and while the implication is that the composer achieves immortality beyond the grave through his music, it does not seem to be any more or less relevant with these six works than with any others. Indeed, it could be argued that only one of these Quartets – Op.76 No.2 – has really achieved immortality in that it is more widely known than the others here.

Appropriately, then, Quatuor Hanson give the Op.76 No.2 Quartet their all, dancing happily across the jaunty opening movement where the minor tonality is belied by the sheer vivaciousness of Haydn’s writing, tip-toeing with consummate delicacy over the delightfully cat-like second movement, boisterous and bucolic (in a measured sort of way) through the polyphonic dispute which frames the 3rd movement and the hen-like clucking which forms the movement’s Trio, and skating with delicious fluency over the slippery finale. On this performance alone, this recording stands out.

Recorded on two separate occasions, there seem to be two very different sound qualities here. For the Op. 76 No.2 recording (and others), the sound is full-bodied, warm and spacious, but with Op,54 No.2 it seems altogether more brittle and crisp as well as more intimate (we hear rather more of the players’ breathing). Nevertheless, Op.54 No.2 also receives a stand-out performance, not so much for the vivid virtuosity the players display in the first movement, but in the intense and profound depths of real sorrow they plumb in the slow movement and the great sense of calm they bring to the largely softly-spoken Finale. Founded in 2013 with the deliberate intention of making the “Haydn string quartets their musical and aesthetic touchstone”, Quatuor Hanson reveals a particularly perceptive approach in this deeply felt performance.

Perhaps what is lacking in general from these performance is open-faced humour to reflect Haydn’s wittiness. Op. 33 No.5 certainly bustles along full of lightness and eagerness, but one feels an undercurrent of seriousness; as if this is music to be respected rather than lived. The obvious wit of the third movement, with its eager questions and its tentative answers, seems only half-hearted and while, in terms of both technical assurance and textural faithfulness, these performances are up there amongst the very best, it sometimes feels as if the players are not wholly involved with it. Haydn’s heart-stopping pauses and interruptions, his abrupt contrasts between rustic melodies and sophisticated harmonic labyrinths and above all, the ease with which he leaps from pathos to near farce, are not always convincingly addressed. The players seem entirely in their comfort-zone, however, with the more straightforward, almost business-like opening of the earliest Quartet recorded here, Op.20 No.5, and of particular note here is the neat, tidy and crisply articulated playing and beautiful transparency of textural detail.

All-in-all, this is a highly promising debut disc from a relatively new quartet who reveal deeply-thought-out-out insights into the great range of Haydn’s string quartet writing. As they write in the generous booklet, “the eclectic portrait of Haydn that emerges here underscores his force and the wide variety of his work”. It certainly does.

Marc Rochester

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